Should We Follow the Rabbis? Pt 1

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:

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?


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Judaism, Mark Kinzer, Messianic Jewish, Torah. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Should We Follow the Rabbis? Pt 1

  1. Robert Efurd says:

    This is an excellent post for the sheer issues of MJ of the future. I left a congregation because of a total rejection of Oral Law.

    I am not a rabbi or a theologian but I would like to present an example from the secular world about the necessity of the Talmud. Please note I am deliberately staying away from Kosher dietary laws and other controversial issues within the movement. I took a personal property rights/bailment class and was exposed to some of the teachings from the Talmud.

    One person finds a red wallet on the ground with $500.00 dollars in it and no ID. What does that person do with the money?

    Well let’s say he opens his Torah and reads from Deuteronomy 22:1 “You shall not see your brother’s ox or his lamb straying, and hide yourself from them: you shall surely return them to your brother.”

    If you do not know, who is the proper owner you are now the custodian for item/animal until you find said owner. You have a duty to seek out and find that person. What do you do if a person makes a claim on the money but describes the wallet as black and not red? What if another person makes a claim on it but she states it was a red wallet with $499.00 in it. Do you give it to her?

    How about this? One person finds scattered coins (about five dollars) on the ground. What are his duties then? Are they the same as the first example? It was someone’s property. Has the property been abandoned?

    Is the answer in the Torah? Do we pray over the issue? Do we look to what the rabbis have stated in the Talmud? Is it all of the above?

    I believe this is the reason we have the Oral Law and Hashem has preserved it. The Talmud gives example answers to the issues (sometimes more than one answer). Most of all it allows us to wrestle with scripture. It is an important tool that we should not discard.

  2. Shoshana says:

    I am one of the very cautious ones when it comes to the Oral Law. This does not mean I reject all Oral Tradition outright. Yeshua himself apparently kept some, such as drinking wine during Passover, which is not a written law. My fear is that we may tend to follow the oral traditions for their own sake, a means to an end. During my walk as a Messianic Jewess I’ve seen this at times. Indeed my first congregation was very Orthodox to the point that there was no life, no leading of the Ruach. No phones usage, no microwaves to warm up food, and the list went on, eventually they winded into Cabala. Not that following this path would necessarily lead to Cabala but it did in this case with the end result that many of us left.
    Messiah Yeshua did not necessarily followed the letter of the law, as when he and his talmidin picked and ate the grains of wheat as they walked through the field, he did not see a need to say ritual prayers before a meal, etc. Nevertheless, he was very much an observant Jew. I would rather compare him in his keeping of halakah with Karaite Jews who observe Torah but basically disdain the Oral Law.
    My stance on gentiles keeping Torah is that once they truly join the Jewish body of Messiah then they are to follow accordingly. Same thing that happens in a family when they adopt a child; the same rules and laws that apply to the natural born applies to the adopted child. This may of course cause some jealousy (as indeed scripture says it will) among my Jewish brethren but it is only right.
    The question is not so much if gentiles should be expected to follow all of Torah as natural Jews are (not just the Noahide laws), but if gentiles would take their joining the commonwealth of Israel seriously enough to do so. When Ruth declared your people would be my people and your Elohim my Elohim she meant it all the way. She didn’t say yes but on Sundays I’ll light a candle to the Moabite Ashtoreth. She plunged in all the way, soul and body. She became what many will consider a righteous ger; call it what you may she gave it her all.

  3. Shoshana says:

    Kinzer declares “For the Jewish ekklesia, all Judaism is Messianic Judaism because all Judaism is Messiah’s Judaism.”
    What does Kinzer means by this statement? Does he means that just being Jewish practicing Judaism makes it fine in Messiah’s eyes? How could all Judaism be Messianic Judaism? While the promise of Messiah can be found in all Judaism that does not necessarily mean that all Judaism is presently actively Messianic.
    Furthermore, historically our ancestors walked away from our Elohim laws time and again, didn’t listen to his prophets, indeed stoned them to death, and to this day sadly many do not read, let alone study, Torah to know and find Messiah within it. Messiah is within Torah but not within all Judaism.

  4. I have a dual view of “oral Torah.” My first view is that it is valuable as commentary, but no more authoritative than any other commentary. My second view is that it is valuable as precedent… but anyone who has heard me rant on U.S. Supreme Court rulings know I don’t find precedent to be necessarily binding. They deserve respectful consideration, but not dogmatic following.

  5. Benjamin says:

    It seems to me that there is a need to acknowledge the Oral Law’s ability to dictate “traditions”, but that it has no say in the full reality of the Torah of HaShem, and our Messiah, Yeshua. The truth is that the full reality of the Torah of God is not expressed fully even in the Pentateuch. As Yeshua emphasizes, it is something that must be lived out. It must be imbedded in our hearts, if it is to be enacted in our deeds. He states, “You should have kept your traditions without forgetting the weightier matters of the Law”. Having said this, it is important to note with complete clarification, the reality that we live in. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS BIBLICAL TRADITION NOT INFLUENCED BY RABBINIC TRADITION IN THE 21ST CENTURY. “Biblical Judaism” doesn’t exist as a separate entity from Rabbinic Judaism. Judaism is the reality of the Jewish people. If we want to be Jewish without engaging in the reality of our people, we will fail. The Kaarites can’t be any more “100% Biblical” than we can.
    It is dangerous to accept all Rabbinic Tradition as authoritative by sheer virtue of the fact that no one does. There are endless opposing views in the Gemara, and even in the Orthodox world, some of the “non-winning” opinions become the norms. Honoring rabbinic tradition is about ENGAGING IN IT. We need to look at it through “Yeshua colored eyes” as best we can. That means that some things will have to go. The fact that we need to pick and choose shouldn’t make us feel illegitimate. Even the Orthodox world needs to (whether they claim to or not), and Yeshua did, too. He found truth and beauty in some traditions, and taught how a flaw in focus can pervert a potential God honoring practice. It is my suggestion that we engage in the reality of Rabbinic Tradition through Yeshua colored eyes. If that ends up making us look a little more “Orthodox” in some areas, while more “Renewal” in others. So be it. This is about the influence of Yeshua in the reality of our world.

  6. Benjamin says:

    By the way, this comment was not meant to attack anyone. I feel strongly about this so the language is strong. Please don’t confuse the tone of the above comment as attempting to oppositional to anyone in this discussion. Thanks and Many Blessings!

  7. Yonathan David says:

    Hi! I’m a Christian who attends the Orthodox shul at my local JSOC. I’ve studied a bit of Gemara so I find the entire question of whether Messianic Jews should follow the rabbis very interesting and important. Are we talking about following the Law as a cultural/G-d given thing or as a means to salvation? The first is fine the second I disagree with. I disagree as Paul didn’t think that the Law was an effective means for becoming justified and therefore saved by Hashem. In his opinion (and I believe he was right) the Law can’t get us right with G-d as we are imperfect. If it could there would be no need for the death and resurection of Yeshua. Yeshua followed the entire Law perfectly as he was perfect. If the Law was the only thing that could save us then Gentiles such as myself and others would have no chance. There is no good reason for giving up Jewish traditions if you are Jewish. Gentiles can also learn a lot. I also quite like Jewish prayer…

  8. Yonathan:

    We do not mean that Torah observance is a system of merit to earn acceptance in the world to come. Messianic Judaism has historically been clear that God’s acceptance comes by faith as a result of God’s grace. The best aspects of Jewish tradition agree. As the Avinu Malkenu says, “We have no good deeds to bring.” Yet, it is also true that in Jewish tradition there are also texts indicating merit-based acceptance, though I think their place is widely misunderstood by those outside of Judaism.

    Anyway, Yonathan, you and I are on the same page.


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