The following is a short paper I wrote for a class I am taking on the Talmud from the Messianic Jewish Theological Institute (mjti.org).
We have a long way to go in Messianic Judaism. The program I describe below is something that we can only hope the next generation will be able to take up. Our generation can only go so far. Talmud study really should begin in elementary school.
I will put an asterisk beside terms that some readers may be unfamiliar with and they will be defined at the bottom.
What Place Should Talmud Have in Messianic Judaism?
In his book The Essential Talmud, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz details the world of the Talmud and the areas of Torah living that are covered in its pages. Prior to taking this class and reading such books as that of Steinsaltz, I confess that I had many wrong notions about Talmud. It is without a doubt that Messianic Judaism up until the present time has not been a movement that encourages knowledge of the Talmud. Rather, various segments of Messianic Judaism have emphasized more engagement with Christian sources or a sort of Karaite* approach to Torah.
If we seriously believe that Messianic Judaism is a Judaism, and if Torah living is important to us, then there are a number of reasons why we must take on the difficult task of learning Talmud.
In the first place, Talmud is a historical document without compare. In Talmud we find historical details about the life of Israel, the origins of customs, procedures from the Second Temple*, and so on.
More than that, Talmud is a Jewish way of thought about subjects important from a Jewish frame of reference. It is a guide for Messianic Judaism in forming halakhah*, not as a book of halakhic decisions, but a guide to the kinds of questions that must be asked and the areas of life that require halakhic rulings.
In Christendom the value of tradition is well-known* and opinions throughout the centuries are sought. Many of these are of value to Messianic Judaism as well. But Christendom has placed no value on numerous areas of life that are crucial for Messianic Jews. How can Messianic Judaism develop ethics, halakhah, and a philosophy of cultural engagement without Talmud?
The Torah is obviously a basic rule leaving many areas open to interpretation. Steinsaltz’s summary of the content of the Talmud exposes many areas where halakhah is needed. How are we to keep Shabbat? What shall be our standards for prayer? What about questions of marriage and divorce? How are we as a Messianic Jewish community to live out the Torah in diverse areas of life?
One answer would be to simply copy another Jewish community’s halakhic standards. Yet we have our own communal standards, including the teaching of our Messiah Yeshua*, that differentiate us from other Jewish communities.
Another answer would be to live as the Christian communities do merely adding on various Torah regulations such as Shabbat, dietary law, and circumcision. Yet we find that even in the restricted domain of these few areas of Torah life there are too many issues to naively have each one do what is right in his own eyes. Also, we find that Christian life and ethics often is missing important aspects of Jewish life.
The Messianic Jewish community can neither copy other Jewish communities nor Christian communities. We bring together, uniquely, the concerns and issues of both communities. Talmud is the garden from which all Jewish plants have grown. A uniquely Messianic Jewish way of life must grow from the same garden, even though our flora will be distinct from the others.
Karaite: The Karaites are a tiny sect of Jews who accept the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy), but not the traditions and further teachings of Judaism. It is impossible to keep the commandments of Torah without making decisions about issues not answered in Torah. I am not sure how Karaites handle this problem.
Second Temple: The first temple was destroyed by Babylon in 586 B.C.E. The Second Temple stood from 516 B.C.E. until 70 C.E. The Judaism of the New Testament era, for example, was Second Temple Judaism.
Halakhah: From the Hebrew word for walking. It means something like, “How exactly can we walk out this commandment?” Halakhah and halakhic rulings are the details of how commandments are to be kept. There is no one single halakhic corpus. Different communities will follow different halakhic principles, though there is agreement on a majority of matters.
Tradition in Christendom: Christian thinkers use tradition more for theology than for practice. Thus, most modern theologians would interact with ancient Christian definitions and theology about subjects like the Trinity or salvation. There are also matters of ancient Christian practice, such as reciting creeds and liturgy, that bridge the ancient and the contemporary much as in Judaism.
Yeshua’s teaching: Yeshua made some statements about topics like the Sabbath or what it means to murder your neighbor that must inform our Messianic Jewish halakhah.