Torah and Messianic Judaism

I’m skipping over to chapter 6 in my review and discussion of MMJT (search Richard Harvey to easily find this whole series of posts). Chapter 5 is about various MJ Christological views. We’ve covered a lot of that in discussing the recent Hashivenu Forum. Also, the subject of Yeshua, deity, and Trinity has brought along a few commenters whose views I’m not really interested in engaging with (they reject most of the New Testament, say Yeshua is simply the ultimate Tzaddik, and say they are Messianic). I’d rather move on to other issues, though Harvey’s chapter 6 is likely to bring on controversy and discussion as well.

Richard Harvey, Paternoster, 2009

Check here to find MMJT on Paternoster and here to find it on amazon. My review of MMJT is merely a summary and a list of some questions raised and not a replacement for owning the book. MMJT is a significant challenge for more work to be done in Messianic Jewish theology as well as a wonderful summary of what has come before. The value of owning this book is first to see the diversity already within the movement and second to imagine the future.

Harvey’s sixth chapter is the first of two about MJ, Torah, and the tradition of Judaism. Chapter six deals more with the theoretical and chapter seven will deal with the practical outworkings of Torah in various segments of MJ.

Torah and MJ: Framing the Issue
Harvey gives a helpful introduction, brief but illuminating, to the meanings and parameters of Torah. It is especially important to consider three normative views of Torah in broader Judaism:

(1) Orthodox: “strict in their observance of the laws of the Pentateuch, which are further expanded, interpreted and applied by rabbinic tradition.”

(2) Conservative: “modify this traditional observance in light of modern thought.”

(3) Reform/Liberal/Reconstructionist: “adopt a humanist and revisionist position that looks to Torah for moral principles and cultural norms, but these may be negotiated and there are few absolutes.”

I find Harvey’s short definitions to be accurate and illuminating. I’d place myself in the middle category, with a Conservative but not Orthodox approach.

Messianic Jews are, for the most part, Torah positive (though Harvey surveys some Torah negative views as well). MJ walks in a tension between the Church which often views Torah observance as legalism and observant Judaism which often assumes that MJ’s do not keep Torah.

A variety of Christian theologies inform the diverse approaches to MJ and Torah. Some MJ groups formed out of Lutheran and Reformed backgrounds or Dispensationalism, and these tend to be Torah negative (Harvey doesn’t exactly make the point this way). Other MJ groups assume something like the New Perspective on Paul (again, Harvey doesn’t say it this way) and are Torah positive. What Harvey does say here, and this is helpful for discussion and reflection, is that Torah is approached in a number of ways by various MJ related groups:

–Torah observance by MJ’s is for the sake of witness to Jewish relatives and friends but is not inherently required.

–Torah observance by MJ’s is for the sake of cultural identification, in order to pass on Jewish identity to the children, but is not inherently required.

–Torah observance by MJ’s is imitation of Yeshua and is dissociated from the authority of Jewish tradition.

–Torah is the “grounds for the life of the covenant people…preserving the witness of Israel to her God.”

It wouldn’t be hard to guess, I fall into the last category, that Torah is the way of life for Israel and that Yeshua and the apostles affirmed Torah and the general thrust of the tradition (though tradition leaves much room for variation, disagreement, and streams of halakha).

Torah Views From Most Negative to Most Positive
For many readers, chapter six will be the most enjoyable read in the whole book. Harvey has done a great service in laying out the spectrum of Torah views in various MJ groups. I will summarize them very briefly here and encourage you to read and engage with all of these ideas.

–”Messiah, Not Moses” — based on Dispensationalism (search this term here on Messianic Jewish Musings to find posts describing Dispensationalism), this view says that Torah is inoperative, a defunct covenant and way of life. Torah may be kept for reasons of witness (Fruchtenbaum is the primary advocate).

–”Jewishness, Not Judaism” –based on Reformed Christian thought, this stream sees Jewish identity as rooted in something other than Torah. Rabbinic Judaism denies Messiah and is a false religion. Everything is now kosher. For cultural identification, some Torah observance is a good thing, but in freedom, not obligation (Baruch Maoz is the primary advocate).

–”Biblical but Not Rabbinic” –an Israeli theology which views Israel separately from Judaism. MJ must not look to rabbinic Judaism, but form its own halakha independently (Gershon Nerel is the primary advocate). Ariel Berkowitz writes a similar view which Harvey curiously lists, IMO, out of its order in the spectrum.

–David Stern –writing in the formative period of MJ, David Stern does not present a coherent and complete approach. He points to Christian scholarship rejecting older ideas about the Law being in some way harmful. He references Oral Torah, says that Yeshua and the apostles revised some traditions of Oral Torah, and is ambiguous about exactly what MJ Torah observance should look like (Stern wrote as a pioneer and broke ground).

–”My Law on Your Heart” –Oral Torah has authority like the civil laws of a nation but must be corrected in cases where Yeshua disagrees (Arye Powlison is the primary advocate).

–”Variety with Guidelines” –applies Dispensationalism to a Torah positive view. Oral Law must be considered with three guidelines: much of it can be used, some can be adapted, some must be discarded. Only moral laws and the sacrificial system are inherently authoritative for today, with sacrifices being subsumed in Messiah’s death. The Mosaic is done away with, but much of it comes back in the New Covenant. Torah observance is based on the idea of a New Torah, mostly but not completely the same as the Old (Louis Goldberg is the primary advocate).

–”New Covenant Halacha” –Dan Juster provides another approach seeking to formulate a New Covenant Torah practice in continuity with the Mosaic, but not identical. The coming of Yeshua and his teaching has rendered some changes in Torah and MJ is to formulate a halacha based on study of every commandment integrated with apostolic teaching. Oral Law is a mixed bag and must be part of the halakhic process, but not as absolute authority. Michael Rudolph developed a Taryag Mitzvot attempting to apply this method.

–”Torah Re-Appropriated” –Michael Schiffman wrote about this in 1990 (I suspect his views are quite different now). He advocates a now-and-not-yet interpretation. Torah is fulfilled, but as the kingdom is not fully here, MJ’s are to live Torah out of freedom, not obligation, in order to demonstrate faithfulness to God and be part of the Jewish community. This view is complex and perhaps not coherent (sorry, Michael, my good friend — I’d love to see your thoughts now after twenty more years of reflection).

–”Yeshua Kept Halacha” –John Fischer represents a school of thought seeing Yeshua maximally in agreement with Pharisaism. Even in the trend in scholarship to see Yeshua as a Jew, Fischer’s position is toward the maximal end of continuity. Fischer is careful to note that Written Torah takes priority over Oral Torah and notes that conflicts do occur and must always favor the Written.

–”Messianic and Conservative Halacha” –Mark Kinzer advocates a Messianic halakha which is in continuity with that of the larger Jewish community. Kinzer emphasizes (in a point sometimes misunderstood, but which if people were honest they would realize is true) that scripture can only be fully interpreted communally and in conversation with a tradition. Israel has a normative tradition with streams and variations, but which MJ halakha must follow. Any conflicts between Yeshua’s teaching and some aspects of Oral Law / normative tradition are handled by the flexibility of the tradition and not by rejecting it. The Torah should be interpreted as it presents itself: as a document intended to be supplemented by the judges of the nation a la Deuteronomy.

It is not difficult to imagine that my own views align with those of Mark Kinzer. I think, however, that Harvey’s categories (which I abridge a little) show us the potential for much variety in MJ approaches to Torah.

How does this list of positions reveal new possibilities to you? Which of these have you considered or lived out? Which have you rejected?

I hope we can have discussion, not arguments (see Ethics of Discussion page, a tab at the top of the blog home page). The issue of Torah and MJ is one which could rightly occupy us in intense discussion for a long time. I’d like to see more MJ’s, Christians, and Jews understand the subtleties of being Yeshua-followers as Jews and this is one of the heart matters of Messianic Jewish faith and practice.


About Derek Leman

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

20 Responses to Torah and Messianic Judaism

  1. mlkmeister says:

    A correction in your intro to this particular entry.I am not Messianic,by the definitions you,the MJAA,MJTI and UMJC hold. I in addition to looking to Yeshua as the ultimate Tzzadik ALSO look at Him as Messiah,which you coveniently
    omit. In the sense that some Lubavitzers see Shneerson as Messiah.If they can be defined as Messianic,then I am Messianic,except MY Messiah is Yeshua.
    I am not here to argue,but to discuss and bring ideas ,not openly discussed, to the table. You apparently feel otherwise.

  2. judahgabriel says:

    Good post, Derek.

    In regards to Torah, I find myself between some of your categories. The closest, but not 100% accurate, is this one:

    –Torah observance by MJ’s is imitation of Yeshua and is dissociated from the authority of Jewish tradition.

    I do see Torah observance as an imitation of Yeshua (and that’s why I think it’s good for both Jews and gentiles to keep the Torah). However, I don’t think it’s disassociated from Jewish tradition.

    As Daniel Lancaster pointed out, Judaism is an essential point of reference for our own observance.

    I’d summarize my view on Torah like this:

    “Torah observance is imitation of Messiah. All disciples of Messiah should become as their master. Judaism should be used as an essential reference for our own observance.”

  3. Judah:

    Just so you know, you can believe that one reason for MJ Torah observance is imitation of our Messiah and also hold to other views as well. So, for example, while I fall into the “Messianic and Conservative” category, I too think imitation of Messiah is strong for us as Messianics.

    Derek Leman

  4. Joseph says:

    My view is that Yeshua fulfilled the Torah for me, as I never could. Maybe one day I’ll incorporate some Torah observance into my life though.

  5. Ovadia says:


    Great post, and very informative.
    I am very much in the “Messianic and Conservative” approach, although I think that Harvey’s definitions of “Orthodox”, “Conservative”, and “everything else” are pretty simplistic and in the case of “everything else” pretty inadequate. I’m not a big fan of rating Judaism from a scale of 0 to Orthodox.
    Question though… does Kinzer (or do you) anticipate there being a single Messianic halakha?

  6. judeoxian says:

    Let me second Ovadia’s comments. Very informative.

    Are Harvey’s descriptions of the denominations of Judaism accurate? His description of “conservative Judaism” seems to me to be a more accurate description of Modern Orthodoxy. Conservative Judaism began as a more traditional version of Reform Judaism, yet in agreement with the philosophical foundation of the Reform movement, namely that the Torah is a product of the Jewish experience, but not given by God at Sinai.

    I find Maoz’s view confusing. Of any stream of Protestantism, the Reformed Calvinist tradition has been one of the most positive towards Judaism and the Law of Moses. For instance, the New England Puritans who modeled their colonial law after the Pentateuch. Or a modern theologian, Walter Kaiser.

    I too would probably fall with the Kinzer category, though I personally have been influenced the most by Daniel Lancaster/FFOZ in my Torah theology and practice.

    One name I would add to this list (though I don’t know if he represents a distinct perspective), is Jeffrey Fineburg.

    • richardsh says:

      Thanks for the discussion of my chapter – my brief descriptions of types of Judaism are only to enter the main discussion of MJ views of Torah – a brief guide to readers not familiar with the main streams. My understanding of Conservative Judaism is influenced by Louis Jacobs and Masorti in the UK – but also reflects the 1988 statement Emet Ve-Emunah, which is both concise and elastic. Also in the UK Liberal = USA Reform, and Reform in UK is now more ‘conservative’!

      IMHO the MJ movement has only recently come to be influenced by Conservative thinking, previously oscillating between Orthodox and anti-orthodox positions. Conservative Judaism is more nuanced, but also more elastic, and this will have repercussions on MJT also.

      • Ovadia says:

        That’s interesting… it was my impression that the only substantive difference between Masorti and Orthodox was the theological issues of the origin of the Torah (Louis Jacobs and all that).
        I mean as far as “short definitions” go they’re certainly not the worst.

        Ditto on the second paragraph. I think those repercussions will be generally positive.

    • Ovadia says:


      His description of Conservative Judaism seemed pretty accurate to me, although you’re right in that it also describes Modern Orthodoxy, the difference is not one of kind but of degree. Conservative Judaism is comfortable with Biblical Criticism (and that is the defining issue between Masorti and Orthodoxy in the UK), but most in it would probably affirm both “given by God” and “product of the Jewish experience” although views on “at Sinai” vary quite wildly. There are significant trends of both traditionalist Reform and modernist Orthodoxy in the history of Conservative Judaism: JTS was initially founded as an Orthodox institution, for example.

  7. Rebecca says:


    Great article. I also identify with keeping Torah both as an imitation of Messiah and in preserving Israel’s witness of God as a light to the nations.

    I probably fall somewhere within the Kinzer/Stern/Fischer mix.

    For me, the most important thing is to remember that God holds his word above his name, and that the Torah of Adonai is good!

  8. Interesting post. In terms of philosophy, I probably fall somewhere between Fischer and Kinzer. But in terms of actual practice, well … we’re still figuring that out.

    The disconnect comes because I don’t feel there is a 21st century Jewish stream that we can credibly compare to the Pharisees of the Second Temple period. It was Yeshua’s dialogue with that group that produced his most vivid Torah commentary, but it’s hard to directly extrapolate his supposed responses to the challenges of the modern world.

    I think certain basic principles were made clear. For example, Yeshua took a very liberal stance on pikuach nefesh. He also made clear that the weightier matters (justice, peace, righteousness) should deeply color our halakhic analysis and lifestyle choices. According to Yeshua, a halakha that does not give power to the powerless is unjust law. He also laid down some hard-hitting laws for marriage, which we have yet to fully absorb, IMHO. And he proposes a relationship with an abusive government and reaction to unjust laws in ways that are rather provocative.

    So much of what the Messianic movement squabbles about (kashrut, the status of women, ritual clothing, styles of prayer, and Gentiles) has nothing to do with the above. Which leads me to the conclusion that we’ve done a whole lot of straining out a gnat in order to swallow a camel.

  9. “So much of what the Messianic movement squabbles about (kashrut, the status of women, ritual clothing, styles of prayer, and Gentiles) has nothing to do with the above. Which leads me to the conclusion that we’ve done a whole lot of straining out a gnat in order to swallow a camel.”

    Monique, would you rather that we squabble over justice, peace, righteousness, marriage, or submission to authorities? Is it not a great thing that we, no matter what is considering “Messianic” these days or Christian for that matter, ALREADY uniformly agree on these more important issues and actively advocate for them?

    Which brings me to this – just calling all these admittedly far less important things “gnats” on which we supposedly waste our time and effort does not reflect the hard reality which those of us (including you) in Messianic Judaism must deal with each and every day within our own communities. These issues may seem unimportant when compared to “social justice”, but they are part of the bigger struggle for the direction and even the very soul of Messianic Judaism and its relevance to the Jewish world we are trying to reach for Yeshua. The alternative: throw our hands up and let others who are no so focused on the “minor issues” take the reins.

    Yeshua dealt with global, widely applicable issues of sin during his ministry instead of individual practices. But did the apostles after him ignore the minor issues in favor of the more “imporant” stuff? They seem to have been straining gnats as well, since they took to great lengths outlining proper practices and confronting aberrant religious behavior, from prayer to clothes, within the newly forming congregations they oversaw, including guidelines on Jews, Gentiles, women, marrieds and various other so called minutiae. We are no better at this than they were!

  10. I’m just going to identify how this has applied to my life, thus far… I hope it’s not too long!

    Between 2001-2005 (during and just after college) I attended a variety of Evangelical Christian churches, visiting a Messianic synagogue only ONCE.
    I came to faith in Jesus at this time, after years of a very relativistic/New Age world view dominating my spiritual life.

    2005: I visited Israel for the first time and had a crisis of faith. I wondered if I’d chosen wisely and made the right decision putting my faith in Yeshua. In the end I realized my relationship with Him was true and I could not turn my back on it – nor did I want to! Though I knew deep down, i yearned for solidarity with my nation, my people, the Jewish people.

    Life went on and I continued to travel to Israel, and in 2007 my faith grew much deeper – but I went on in a “Messiah, Not Moses” way.
    FunnY – Though I often I met Christians who loved Judaism at MJ synagogues, I never connected in a meaningful way & actually met very few JEWISH people while visiting! That was always disappointing to me. I met more believing Jews in church!

    2008: I move to CA. My fiance is Messianic, but with little Jewish upbringing or influence… He pastored a church in our community that is a ”Jewishness, Not Judaism” type of church” -teaching on and celebrated Jewishness, MJ elements were part of our calendar – Seders, Messianic Yom Kippur services… (the church is on hiatus right now).

    2009- On our honeymoon in Israel my husband and I meet new friends from Germany and Norway – newly married, as well. They are not Jewish – yet they honor the Torah, the Sabbath, they truly love Torah! It amazes us.

    Today: I sense that there is more to this for me as a Jewish believer in Yeshua. I sense that the churches I have been to were not fully understanding of Torah, and it’s application to Jewish & non-Jewish believers in ADONAI.
    I sense contradiction in the Christian viewpoint on Torah, especially regarding the Jewish believer….and find myself drawn to “Messianic and Conservative Halacha” idea (so far).

    I want to start a Jewish “home group!” or home-based MJ Torah study group… We have MJ’s around but NO Messianic community where I live.

    My eyes are opening, my heart is thirsty, I don’t quite know how to “walk” this out, but I hunger for more… I too believe that the everyday halacha is important – it’s not the forest or the trees, the two perspectives are not “either or” but clearly form a whole.

  11. I think I should clarify a bit – when I say “Christian viewpoint on Torah” I’m referring to what I commonly run across in church— the “Grace vs. Law” interpretation of “Torah.” It just seems like a very limited perspective on Torah that misses much of the point.

  12. Vanessa:

    Great story. I emailed you to respond a bit. Thanks for letting us hear about your journey.

    We’re all on the road, you know?


  13. dayvii says:

    Excellent blog – thank you.

    Vanessa – I think that’s just the way Gentile grafting-in seems to work.
    Like MJ, GC (Gentile Christianity) has its own spectrum based on degrees of reformation and value of Scripture. For example the Church of Scotland (despite some of its current political sympathies)
    has the burning bush as its ‘logo’ (you might just be able to make it out on the image in the centre of this web page ).

    Perhaps those in GC who do not appear to be Torah-favourable but who are not anti-nomians probably go for something like Yeshua being the complete embodiment of Torah-righteousness (and more) and do their best to remain in Him according to the revelation given to them. This, then, being the case it may transpire that many are more Torah-observant than meets the eye.

    Hope that wasn’t too obvious and was of interest.

  14. cybrsage says:

    The way I see it, Jesus gave us two commands which sum up the Torah. Love God with all your heart, strength, and soul and to love your neighbor as yourself.

    Paul later tells us that to love God is to follow God’s commands.

    The Torah is a listing of God’s commands for the Jews…with a small portion listing the commands for the Gentiles.

    Thus, if we are to do as Jesus commanded us, which is to love God, we must follow God’s commands, which are listed in the Torah (and vary based on Jew or non-Jew).

    Easy and simple. The key is to follow them for the right reason, which is because you love God. Following them to look “holy” in the eyes of others is wrong and legalistic.

  15. Vanessa says:

    dayvii – that was an interesting comment :) thank you (like, a year later!) i did appreciate the feedback. funny, I googled “messianic jewish home study group” and wound up stumbling across my own comment on the blog here!
    could i be going in circles, much?!
    we’re all on the journey, as was said earlier.

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