Ways of Reading Torah

JewishBookHomeTopLast week’s reading was Nitzavim, which begins in Deuteronomy 29:9 (10 in Christian Bibles). Moses has gathered the second generation, all of them, before entering the land. Gathered are the men, the women, the children, and everyone from the woodcutters to the water-carriers.

Torah is your responsibility Moses tells them. And not only yours, but it is the responsibility as well of those who are not here today — the future generations who have yet to be born.

I am trying to impress upon my synagogue the joy and responsibility of Torah learning. I held a party at my house this week with an in-depth class for beginners in the study of Torah.

In preparing for that class, I thought about different ways of reading Torah. I wanted to introduce my students to a quick summary of different kinds of reading they might be exposed to.

Because Messianic Judaism is closely related to Christian communities, it is natural that my synagogue members might own and read reference materials prepared by Christian authors. So a Christian approach to Torah was the first one I wished to summarize for them. It might seem, when you read it below, that I am being highly critical of church readings of the books of Moses. While I respect the various denominations that follow Jesus in their own traditions, I have yet to find one which has its strength in respecting the books of Moses. I think it is fair to say this is a weak spot in virtually all forms of Christianity.

Because my synagogue members are likely to use reference materials prepared by the Orthodox Jewish community, I prepared them to understand the Orthodox-Mystical way of looking at Torah. As you will see below, I take issue with and yet learn from the Orthodox view of Torah.

Also, it is likely that my members will read, see, or hear the modern, rationalist way of looking at Torah, which I describe as the Scientific-Historical view.

Finally, I tried to sum up my own view of how Torah is to be read. I call it the Community-Covenant view.

I hope that you enjoy the chance to consider these different ways of reading. Please do not hesitate to correct me or ask me for clarification if you think I have been unfair. I am frequently wrong and it would not surprise me.


A Popular Christian Model: The Outdated Manual
A collection of stories pointing to Christ and useful for character building combined with laws and procedures for Israel that have little to do with living for God today.

An Orthodox-Mystical Jewish Model
The Torah contains within it answers for every area of life. Written Torah is combined with Oral Torah, the teachings of the sages filtered down through the years which are said to have their basis in God’s unwritten instruction to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Although written Torah is granted the greatest authority, in this model, all of the rabbinic teachings become authoritative like Torah. When an answer cannot be found in the literal (p’shat) interpretation, other more mystical interpretations can be found to justify traditions (remez or hint, d’rash or comparative, and sod or mystery). Studying Torah means reading the written Torah as well as Talmud and other rabbinic literature.

A Scientific-Historical Model
Different authors or groups over a long period of time wrote the Torah. The documentary hypothesis has variations but generally sees a Yahwist writer (J) from the time of the kings, an Elohist writer after him (E), followed later by the Priestly writer (P), and the Deuteronomist (D). Later the idea of Holiness writer (H) was added. In general, J and E wrote the older stories. P added rituals and regulations for a temple whereas the pure worship of old had been spontaneous and on quickly made altars. D added the idea of a covenant and blessings and curses. H amended P and was concerned with purity and holiness laws. In this view, the Torah is Israel’s philosophy of religion as it developed over centuries.

A Community-Covenant Model
The Torah is the foundation of God’s revelation to his community (Israel and through Israel to the nations). The Torah establishes a covenant and a community. The covenant is with Israel but has in view spreading to the nations through Israel as the priestly people (therefore, it is no surprise that Torah has different requirements for Jews and Gentiles regarding some matters). The community is important in understanding Torah, since many details are omitted. It is not possible to keep Torah in isolation from the community. Thus, the traditions of Israel, broadly interpreted, are part of Torah. Whereas the Orthodox-Mystical approach grants too much authority to rabbinic literature, a more moderate community-covenant model recognizes and finds answers within rabbinic literature. Whereas the Orthodox-Mystical model always adds more layers of tradition and insists on the strictest rulings, the community-covenant model looks for consensus in tradition and is more open to variation and local traditions.


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, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Torah. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Ways of Reading Torah

  1. cjlid says:

    Hello Derek,
    Reading the summary for the Popular Christian Model, I’m not sure what issue you could take with it. For the most part, I would agree with it, though it was framed in a more negative light than I would have said it.

    “A collection of stories pointing to Christ…”
    -It’s true that the Torah does foreshadow and point to Messiah.

    “…useful for character building…”
    -Not to mention teaching and reproof; also a true statement

    “…combined with laws and procedures for Israel that have little to do with living for God today.”
    -I believe I would have said “that are not binding on the individual Christian.” To say that a Christian reading finds Torah “useful for character building” yet “ha[s] little to do with living for God today” is contradictory.

    If you say that Gentiles have different requirements under the Torah, and therefore a different relationship to the Torah, wouldn’t it be necessary for them to have a different reading of the Torah as well? If that’s the case, isn’t the popular Christian model pretty close to the way that gentiles should read the Torah?

  2. cjlid:

    In part you may have missed what I was saying because I wasn’t clear enough and also in part it would be good for me to clarify how much more I think there is for Christians in their Old Testament than most of them realize.

    So, first, let me expand on a few phrases. “Stories pointing to Christ” is insufficient, IMO, for several reasons. First, not all the stories can even be stretched into a framework of pointing to Christ. And even if they could, I think it is wrong to assume that only types and prophecies are important. But the sad thing is when people distort the stories by trying to turn them into something they are not. Jesus’ ancestors were people, not just symbols. “Character building” is my way of poking fun at character study sermons. You don’t need a Bible to do character studies. Aesop’s fables work just as well. It is tragic reduction, common to much preaching, when the only thing David is good for is a “type” of Christ and a character sermon.

    You are right, since you are a close friend and we talk all the time and you know me well, that I do not think the Torah in its entirety is a law-code for Christians. But that never, ever meant I agreed with the negative portrayals of the Old Testament common in Christian teaching.

    First, there is so much value for a non-Jew in learning the sacrificial, temple, priestly, holiness system. It is more than useless, outdated procedures for a defunct temple. That temple will be rebuilt and the priesthood re-instituted. Also, the theology of that system greatly informs our understanding of God and Messiah. And the laws of Torah are worthy of study by non-Jews because many of them are universal in nature. And in the details there is wisdom.

    Second, in the usual idea that the Old Testament is outdated, there is no recognition of the continuing role of Israel or of the need for Messianic Jews to keep Torah. There is too much of the kind of thinking that “in Christ the law is abolished” for Jews and non-Jews. There is a strange idea that God made a mistake in giving the Torah and that Jews should say no to God in order to say yes to Jesus.

    Third, I think there are many reasons why Christians would do well to learn Jewish roots. For some it will be simply to understand Jesus better. For others it may include a desire to adopt some of the traditions for themselves. Passover, for example, is a wonderful custom for a Christian to adopt. I suspect Jesus may have had that in mind when he said, “As often as you do this, do it in remembrance of me.” They weren’t taking communion (a custom which did not exist) but were eating the Passover.

    I hope this helps a little. It’s hard to explain it all in so few words.


  3. cjlid says:

    I didn’t miss what you were saying. I just put a positive spin on it which is more in line with my experiences. You seem to give the impression that you’ve been reading some Christian interpretation that divides the Torah into “stories” and “laws”. The stories are great for the kids’ Sunday school classes until they graduate to reading Paul all the time, and the laws are “dead in Christ” and not worth the time. I’m sure that there may be some places that think along those lines, but I’ve never been exposed to them, and I’ve gone to a number of different denominations before settling on MJ.

    I’d like to articulate my responses to the quotes above a bit more. I didn’t make any distinction between one part or the other of the Torah. Christ didn’t just “fill up” the “stories”, or priestly system, he filled up the entire Torah. It all foreshadows Messiah, while having a factual identity all its’ own. The entirety of the Torah is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” I’ve never heard any differently from an actual Christian pastor (discounting “internet people”). God didn’t make any asinine laws; the heart of the master can be found searching any of them.

    If Gentiles aren’t required to keep the Torah, and aren’t required to religiously or ethnically convert to Judaism. Isn’t that what they should be getting out of Torah? The Community Covenant model you pose seems to focus on the necessity of community in keeping Torah. What sort of reading should be adopted by those who don’t?

    How about the above question; Should Jewish and Gentile believers have a different way of reading the Torah since they have a different relationship to it?

  4. cjlid:

    Actually, your description, which you say is not the norm, is spot on. Pick up any Christian children’s curriculum. Survey the topics of sermons at any Protestant church. It will be as you described but then claimed not to be real.

    But back to a positive question: should Christians read the Torah differently since it is Israel’s covenant book? Yes, absolutely. And Messianic Jews also read Torah differently. We do carry what we read into our present day, as all forms of Judaism do, and for us, the present situation is Messiah. I am not objecting to a forward reading which takes the text seriously and applies it in out context of Messiah faith. What I was objecting to was an approach in which the Torah is valuable only in places that can be seen as a type of Christ or in places where a character sermon can be preached.

    I wrote a book for Christians about how to read the Hebrew Bible. In my book I explain how the theology, customs, and laws of God relate to followers of Jesus. The Hebrew Bible is rich enough to be studied without making it merely a prelude.

    Just today I wrote an answer on blog comments thread to Andrew Farley, an author whose book The Naked Gospel is becoming popular. His comments should serve as an illustration that a negative view of the books of Moses is alive and well:
    *I’m dead to law.
    *I’m not under law.
    *I’m free from law.
    *I’m not supervised by law.
    *I serve in the newness of the Spirit.
    *I don’t serve in the old way of the letter.
    *The Old Covenant is weak and useless.
    *The Old Covenant is obsolete.
    *The Ten Commandments on stone minister death and condemnation (2 Cor)

    Farley will say these are simply scriptural statements. But I could make an impressive list of short statements of scripture pointing to all kinds of absurd things. As I said to him on the thread, it matters how to you put together the whole message of scripture, not just some verses taken out of context.

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