This will be a series of articles summarizing a paper written by Dr. Mark Kinzer for the 2003 Hashivenu Leadership Forum. You can read the full paper here: http://www.hashivenu.org/papers/2003_Jewish_Tradition_Kinzer.pdf
Before I get to the first part of Dr. Kinzer’s paper, let me summarize the issue for this who are less familiar. Many of us in Messianic Judaism are convinced it is vital for Jewish followers of Yeshua to recover faithfulness to the Torah. Many of us are growing in observance and Torah education. Our movement has come a long way in 35 years.
One of the key issues is Oral Torah, the teachings of the rabbinic sages about details on how to keep Torah. This issue is extremely complicated not least of all because the amount of rabbinic literature is vast and we might wonder what exactly in the rabbis should be authoritative if anything at all. Add to this the sometimes extreme interpretations in the Orthodox community, many of which surpass the Talmud in stringency, and this issue is difficult.
Let me quickly give some example of helpful Oral Torah that few would have a problem with (assuming they already accept that Torah is for Messianic Jews). A simply example is fasting on Yom Kippur. Torah simply says to “deny yourself,” which the rabbinic sages have defined as fasting, with allowances made for health concerns and special cases. Few would deny that fasting is a reasonable interpretation of the Torah command from Leviticus 23. The community agrees on this standard and it works well. There will be other examples throughout my summary of Dr. Kinzer’s paper. It should be noted that Torah often leaves details for the community to decide. That is what Oral Torah is all about.
Finally, before I start summarizing Dr. Kinzer’s paper, I know that many have objections. Some are thinking, Yeshua was against the traditions, or, the rabbinic view of Oral Torah is a legend we cannot accept historically, etc. Please . . . these will be answered in the course of these articles and are already answered in Dr. Kinzer’s paper. Keep reading. You may be surprised that this issue is not what you thought it was.
Let me now begin the summary . . .
Dr. Kinzer begins by noting the difficulty of the topic. Nearly everyone who subscribes to Torah recognizes the need for tradition to fill in the details but few can agree on what parts of the tradition are authoritative (Mishnah, Midrash, Gemara, the great exegetes like Rashi, Ramban, and Ibn Ezra, the codes like Maimonides or Shulkhan Arukh, etc.). Few MJ’s would accept the term Oral Torah because is seems to connote divine authority.
Dr. Kinzer admits from the outset that he would not defend the entirety of rabbinic literature as authoritative nor accept a literal view of Oral Torah having been delivered from God’s mouth to Moses’ ear and passed down orally through the generations. Still, he accepts the term Oral Torah as a useful one. This is more than mere tradition, it is THE communal tradition about how to keep Torah. Further, Torah requires adaptation and renewed application in each generation as there are changes (e.g., invention of the car, television, etc.).
Dr. Kinzer asks why the concept of Oral Torah is so offensive to many Messianic Jews. He lists reasons including: belief that written Torah has priority, suspicion that Oral Torah often overturns written Torah, Yeshua’s objections to some of the traditions of the elders, Yeshua’s granting of halakhic authority (binding and loosing) to the apostles, and suspicion of the community that rejected Yeshua (equating Pharisees with modern Judaism).
The paper is long and I will probably need 6 – 10 posts to get through the paper without taking on too much material at once. I hope by summarizing it in short doses I can promote discussion and learning. I will stop here for today and close with a few scriptures and thoughts.
First, it might be helpful for people thinking about this issue to consider a few key scriptures:
Deut 17:11 According to the instructions that they give you, and according to the decision which they pronounce to you, you shall do. You shall not turn aside from the verdict that they declare to you, either to the right hand or to the left. (The establishment of judges to issue specific rulings on Torah for the community.)
Matt 18:18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Yeshua authorizing apostles to decide halakhah for the Yeshua-community, binding and loosing used rabbinically of making legal decisions).
Matthew 23:2 The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. (Yeshua instructs the apostles to follow the teaching of the Pharisees–he doesn’t mention the Sanhedrin, which is curious and is evidence that he means the halakhah being developed by the Pharisees rather than the governing authority of the Sanhedrin).
So, here are some questions for thought:
How are rabbinic traditions important right now in your own Torah observance?
What rabbinic traditions are you suspicious of?
Are there specific areas where you feel MJ’s need to differ with rabbinic tradition?
If the community is not to have one authoritative tradition, how should we keep Torah?