Martians and the Myth of Tradition-Less Religion

martiansFrom several quarters I have felt the press of this issue in the past few days.

A commenter on Messianic Jewish Musings said that a certain piece of Jewish tradition was “a violation of the commandment not to add to Torah.”

A friend from the UK wrote with a wonderful illustration about Martians and religion (see below) and the pivotal role of tradition.

A rabbi friend and mentor wrote in an email discussion about the fallacy of the “I simply read the Bible as I see it” approach.

The idea of a pure and tradition-less religion (Christian or Jewish) is a common myth but is less likely to surface than the Loch Ness monster in the Dead Sea in Israel.

I explained to the commenter here on Messianic Jewish Musings that the Torah leaves out the details and leaves them for the community to fill in with tradition. If you read Torah thoughtfully and consider how to keep its injunctions you will find this for yourself. And neither does the New Testament fill in the details for Christian and Messianic practice. Singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs is a broad command. Baptism is commanded but not given a specific ceremony or wording.

My rabbi friend and mentor, Stuart Dauermann, wrote in an email: It is sooooo easy to imagine that “other people interpret using tradition, but I just take the Bible as it is!” How true! Observant Jews argue over rice at Passover or the doubling of Yom Tovs and practicing Christians argue over infant versus believers’ baptism and just war versus non-violent resistance.

Following up on Rabbi Dauermann’s point, which Christian denomination is practicing worship “just as it is in the Bible”? Most people are likely to think their own denomination is doing so. Most people lead an unexamined life of accepting what they have been told and whatever their religious experience is. Which branch of Judaism prays properly, according to Torah?

And it all gets much clearer when you consider the illustration I received by email from a friend in the UK (not sure he would want me to use his name). He said:

I recently came up with an wacky illustration – if you were a martian living on mars, knowing nothing of life on earth, and the postman delivered a bible (conveniently translated for you, of course), would you be able to accurately understand and recreate Christianity or Judaism, either as they were in biblical times or are today? Of course you wouldn’t. Our understanding and expression of faith is passed down in communities from generation to generation. That’s the way Hashem intended it – l’dor v’dor.

Consider what my wise friend is saying. If you are Jewish and pray the Shacharit, do you imagine that this Martian would develop a Siddur like the one you use just from the Torah? If you are Baptist, do you suppose the Martian church would look naturally like a Baptist church because that is clearly the intent of the New Testament? Of course not.

So let’s all outgrow the myth of pure religion that is scriptural and not tradition-bound. It exists only in the minds of those who have not examined the idea with any depth.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christian, Judaism, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Talmud and Tradition. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Martians and the Myth of Tradition-Less Religion

  1. judahgabriel says:

    Thought-provoking and well articulated.

    You and FFOZ have opened my eyes to the (usually) righteous nature of tradition, and how those of us who have practiced Torah according to our own understanding will simply invent our own traditions. Ironic in a way.

    I would like to offer some apologetics for those who do follow the Scriptures “just as they read it”.

    That response is usually a reaction to the sometimes overbearing weight of traditions in sects of Christianity and Judaism.

    The “tradition-less” folks (even though they have their own traditions) react to this kind of thing by saying, “Let’s just do what’s in the Bible.”

    I can relate to that.

    These same folks look at Messiah’s statements in Mark, where he tells them they are nullifying the commandments of God because of their traditions.

    A practical example of nullifying the commandments might be this one: A (non-Messianic) Jewish friend related to me, “There’s no way I can keep kosher; I don’t have separate kitchens in my tiny apartment, nor separate sets of dishes for meats and dairy!”

    In this case, the Orthodox tradition of separating meat and dairy is a burden too heavy for this woman, causing her to throw out kashrut altogether, nullifying the commandment for her.

    I’ve found most of the folks who are on the “let’s practice the Scriptures just as we read them” aren’t wholly against tradition, but rather, heavy traditions that can make keeping the commandments a burden.

    Shalom Derek.

  2. mchuey says:

    Coming from a Methodist background, I have always appreciated the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, an easy way of formulating theology:

    Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience

    While this is a method that has helped many evangelical Christians sort through areas where the Bible is mute, I cannot say that this method has not also helped me in my Messianic and Torah experience as well. It’s an hermeneutic of Scripture First, rather than Scripture Only.

    I have always been favorable toward philo-traditional forms of Torah observance, and have even been willing to take on others “within my own party” (so to speak) on this issue. What else would you expect of someone who comes from a family background of clergy, college professors, and military officers?


  3. rabbiadam says:

    Alright, in the interests of full disclosure, I am the commentator Derek’s referring to in his first paragraph, although he made it sound like I’m some Karaite-esque, counter-tradition type.

    Derek, I’m not against all tradition. I am all for tradition and even non-Scriptural Jewish festivals. A quick check of anything I’ve written, the recordings of my services and radio shows on my podcasts, the schedule of events on my congregation’s website, etc. would show that.

    Yes, I object to the rabbinic adding of a day to a festival with a clearly-defined start-date and number of days as a prohibited addition to Torah. Why? Because God made a specific commandment, keep it for X number of day(s). Certainly, tradition can and should guide us as to how to keep those days. But to claim tradition can say keep 2 days for a 1 day festival or eight days for a seven is clearly not within the lattitude given us.

    I have a three-fold test — based, I believe, on the body of Scripture, especially the various rulings on the traditions given in the Apostolic Writings — on how to judge the propriety of keeping traditions:

    1) Does the tradition violate the literal intent of the words in the Torah? If so, then the tradition must be discarded. (I believe the extra day business for any festival except Purim to fall into this category; Scripture actually tells us to keep the extra day in walled cities.) If not, the tradition may be subjected to the second test.

    2a) Does the tradition violate the spirit of the command it’s based on or 2b) violate the spirit of the Torah in general? (Yeshua particularly rails against such violations of the spirit of Torah in his discussion of korban used to not be able to help parents and his discussion of ritual handwashing.) Assuming that it passes the second test, the tradition may be subjected to the third test.

    3) Does the tradition point towards Messiah (specifically Yeshua), is it neutral towards Messiah, or does it point away from Messiah? If a tradition points towards Messiah, then I think not only can we keep it, but we should. If a tradition is neutral towards Messiah, then I think we may keep it, but it’s not a should or shouldn’t. If it points away from Messiah, then I think we shouldn’t keep it.

    I hope this clears this up for you. I actually agree with everything you say here. In many ways, Torah gives no specifics and in those cases, tradition is vital for filling in the blanks, assuming it meets the three-fold test. I just disagree that the additional day thing is an acceptable tradition.

    • Adam:

      I thought you were a bit more traditional than your comment made you appear. Glad to hear that.

      You are still missing a key point: when the halakhah was made to have two days of Yom Tov in the diaspora it was not adding an extra day. It was covering both days due to uncertainty about which was the right one.


  4. peterygwendyta says:

    A very interesting and much needed article.

  5. Judah:

    I feel you about the oppressive weight of some interpretations of the tradition. My sense is that the solution is to work within and out of respect for the tradition. I think Conservative Judaism and, increasingly, Reform Judaism are doing this.

    The problem with Orthodoxy, in my view, is the stubborn accumulation of stricter and stricter rulings, lack of accommodation to changing times, and the insistence that all who do not follow things their way are not real players. This is always true of fundamentalism in every religious sphere.

    I am not advocating Orthodoxy. I am advocating a broader, more liberal view of the tradition.

    No need for two sinks, though I commend those who choose to keep two sinks. My halakhic views lean more toward the MJRC (


  6. judahgabriel says:

    Thanks, Derek. I understand what you are saying.

  7. rabbiadam says:

    Okay, I understand the reasons given by tradition for the extra day. I still say that it’s a violation of the literal words of Torah. I don’t agree that we can’t know the proper days — there has been, for thousands of years, predating that interpretation, the knowledge of the astronomical calculations.

  8. mchuey says:

    I think that halachically most of us who advocate a philo-traditional form of Torah observance are placing ourselves between what we see are two extremes: a hyper-traditional Orthodoxy and an anti-traditional Karaitism. We recognize the stability brought by the traditional calendar, Passover sedar, liturgy in the Shabbat service. We also regonize the value of the Rabbinic tradition in theology, but not at the expense of the grammatical-historical and/or archaeological issues brought forward in the more modern era.

    I think that we will see the pendulum shift toward the Center in the future, with most on this quest mirroring the Conservative-Reform spectrum.

    To add to this conversation, I know that the ministry that I serve has, in the past, advocated the Saddusaical method of counting the omer, believing it to be the best reading of Leviticus 23. For five years I have held to the traditional Pharisaic view–not out of any spite for “Sunday”–but rather because Leviticus 23 is not the only factor to be considered. Among other things there is also Deuteronomy 16, the Greek LXX, Philo and Josephus, the Pharisaism of the Apostle Paul, what prophetic fulfillment actually entails, and the theology of resurrection itself. The debate actually has nothing to do with Sunday as much as it has to do with hermeneutics–and how simplistic or complicated those hermeneutics may be.

    Now, they’re beginning to see things my way! ;)


  9. warland52 says:

    In the New Testament the Greek word “paradosis” appears, which can be translated as “tradition.” Sometime it’s a good thing and sometimes it’s a bad thing. A couple examples from Paul’s writings:
    Good Thing:
    I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you. 1 Corinthians. 11:2
    So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter. 2 Thessalonians 2:15
    Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. 2 Thessalonians 3:6
    Bad Thing:
    See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. Colossians. 2:8

  10. michaelger says:


    Two things. Firstly, about a year ago i wrote a very unbalanced irrational attack on you and those Jewish believers on your blog with regards to an entirely different thread on “Gentiles and the Torah” (trust me I do have a relevant point coming for this thread). You rightly sent me a very even-handed personal email indicating why you felt it necessary to remove my comment.
    Please allow me , the opportunity to offer a rather belated apology for that behavior. A year of study and growth has allowed me ample opportunity to reflect on my last post and I deeply regret it.

    In the spirit of that apology I would like to make an observation and perhaps offer a question with regards to this whole “Tradition” dilemma. Again, my apologies in advance for perhaps a slightly lengthy post.

    If someone is really”Torah observant”..a term which itself would seem to have no context outside of an understanding of a normative Judaism…this implies the whole of Torah , does it not.

    Given that point I find it interesting that Passages of Torah like Moshe Rabbeinu’s encounter with his father-in-law Yisro and the wilderness establishment of a judicial Torah authority in Exodus, Moshe’s recap of that in event in the first chapter of Deuteronomy and again the re-enforcing of the need and the Torah established creation of a Torah authority in Deuteronomy 16—these portions of Torah never seem to be discussed by “Torah observant” congregations–least ways not predominantly gentile ones…

    How do these passages distill with Messiahs words. WE know that he has given halachic authority to the Shliachim
    with his “keys of the kingdom” exhortation to Peter. Yet we also are acutely aware of his words in Matthew 23 regarding the expected relationship of the Messianic Jewish assembly and the normative Judaism of the time… “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; 3therefore all that they tell you, do and observe…” (Matthew 23:2-3). There is the rub,is it not??

    How do we do one inside the other. Refusing to accept the potential for truth in the former does nothing to enhance ones following of the later. Following that road places “Torah observance” as one more branch of “Christianity” with so many sectarian flavors beneath it.
    There is no question that this direction has been and continues to be born out. One need only look at a sampling of what tries to qualify itself as “Messianic Judaism” in existence right now.Which again seems very counterproductive and contradictory in a movement referring to itself as a Judaism.

    These certainly are not new words! I would highly value individuals with such seemingly “rabbinic” axes to grind to address those sections of Torah which ascribe this authority to learned Godly men..and transpose that onto the MJ movement as it stands??

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