YESHUA‘ AND THE “LAW”: FOR OR AGAINST?
Christianity maintains that the sayings of ‘Jesus’ contained in the gospels prove that he was opposed to Torah, that he saw it as a burden; and through the writings of Paul of Tarsus, Christianity maintains that the ‘Law’ enslaved us, and only through ‘Christ’ are we set free.
Ironically, it is in the interests of mainstream rabbinical Judaism for this stance to be maintained too. It keeps Yeshua‘ out of Jewish thought, and supposedly proves to Jews that Yeshua‘ was against Judaism.
There are some Jewish writers who are trying to bring Yeshua‘ back into the Jewish fold, but unfortunately on their own terms. They claim that he was a Pharisaic Jew, who fully supported the teachings and traditions of Pharisaism. The Pharisees (and their modern counterparts the rabbis), maintained that Jews were obliged and bound to obey a body of rules and commandments contained in what is known today as the Oral Law. These are laws in addition to those contained in the bible.
Most Christians do not know the difference between the Oral Law and the Written Law. To them they are one and the same. As a result, whenever they see condemnation of “the Law”, they automatically assume it is a condemnation of Torah i.e. the first five books of the bible.
Unfortunately neither do most ordinary Jews today realise that the majority of rules they have to obey don’t come from the bible, but are actually rules invented by rabbis centuries ago.
In this article, I intend to show that what Yeshua` was condemning was in fact the Oral Law - the rabbinical laws, commentaries, and commandments written by the Pharisees and their theological descendants the rabbis. As a faithful Jew and as a prophet of God, he was upholding the commandment not to add or subtract anything from Torah (Deut 4:2 “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor shall you subtract anything from it”).
Christians ask, “How can Jesus criticise the Law on the one hand, and then in the next breath uphold it?” How can he condemn the faithful observance of Torah by Pharisees, and then claim that he has come to fulfil it? This dilemma exists only because few Christians know or understand the difference between the Written Law – that is, Torah proper, as contained in the first five books of the bible – and the Oral Law. Nowadays the Oral Law is fully codified in the Talmud. For Orthodox rabbinical Jews, this work has as much authority as the bible.
However, few Christians know that in ancient times, the only group who accepted the Oral Law as binding and authoritative were the Pharisees. Admittedly, many Jews did look to it to clear up ambiguities or for advice, but they had a “take it or leave it” attitude to the Oral Law. Some other groups actually rejected it outright (such as the Sadducees and the Essenes). Modern Judaism tries to portray a false picture of the Oral Law being universally accepted from the year dot, but this is simply not the case. This mendacious image is responsible for the Christian misunderstanding that Yeshua` was against the Law in its entirety.
The Chink in the Armour
There is, however, a chink, a flaw in this image. If Yeshua` was so against the Law, then why did he say of biblical commandments in the Torah, “the person who keeps them and teaches them will be considered great in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 5:19)?
If he was so against the Law, why did he say that he had not come to abolish the Law (Mt 5:17)?
If he himself rejected the law, then why did he criticise the Pharisees for rejecting God’s commandments (Mt 15:4-6)?
The truth is, that where opposition to “the Law” – that is, to Torah – is concerned, Yeshua` did no such thing. No argument to support Yeshua`’s opposition to the written Torah can possibly be maintained.
What Yeshua` thought of the Oral Law
The criticisms which Yeshua` voices are not against Torah, but against the Oral Law (the “Traditions of the Elders”). The Oral Law contains commentary based upon commentary, rabbinical commandment layered upon rabbinical commandment, so much so that many rabbinical decisions are not actually based on Torah but on other rabbinical decisions. Even today, Orthodox rabbis know that the Oral law causes problems for people (e.g. widows, paternal Jews to name but two groups). However, they are not willing to lift the burden and return to Torah, because it means admitting the Oral law is unjust. Yeshua’ criticised their Pharisaic antecedents for the same inflexibility:
“You tie up heavy loads, hard to carry, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but you’re not willing to lift a finger to help”. (Mt 23:4, Lk 11:46)
Today, there are some ordinary Jews, especially on the fringes of the Orthodox community, who feel the laws of the Talmud are too intricate and cumbersome. They feel it keeps them at a distance from God, and these people end up lost to Christianity. Yeshua` also felt that, rather than bringing people to God, the Oral Law kept people away from the kingdom:
“…you shut the door of God’s kingdom in people’s faces and throw away the key. And you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who wish to enter to go in!” (Mt 23:13, Lk11:52).
Today, Talmidi and Karaite Jews complain that in a number of instances, the Talmud actually forbids the observance of Torah. Examples are the observance of the New Moon holiday, the wearing of blue cords (techelet) on the corner fringes of our garments, the observance of the Nazirite vow, not pronouncing God’s Name under any circumstances, and many more. They may seem like trivial and unimportant mitzvot, but they are part of a heritage which was designed to mould the Jewish soul, and give us a sense of the greatness and holiness of God. Yeshua` himself criticised this fact of the Oral Law:
“So for the sake of your Traditions, you have in fact nullified the commandment of God!” (Mk 7:13, Mt 15:6).
Yeshua` criticised how the Oral Law took things to extremes
In the New Testament, Christians read how we Jews supposedly argue about what things to swear by (Mt 23:16-22, Mt 5:34-37), and how we Jews quibble over how far up our elbows we should wash before we eat, lest our food become contaminated (Mk 7:18-23, Mt 15:17-20). Some Christians look at this and think to themselves, “How trivial Jews are, how stupid the Torah must be to command Jews to do this. I’m so glad that Christ came to do away with Torah, so that I don’t have to follow it!”)
The fact is, that Torah nowhere commands us to do these things, rather it is the Oral Law which does. Yeshua` is condemning the Oral Law, NOT Torah.
Our righteousness has to exceed that of the Pharisees
Reform Judaism, especially in the US, has seen and understood how the extremes of Jewish tradition have alienated a younger generation of Jews, who are drifting away and abandoning their heritage. Unfortunately, they have replaced the stricter exactitudes of the Talmud with the philosophy of “mix and match” or even “do what you like, as long as it looks kinda Jewish”.
While even God understands and accepts that human beings object to things out of conscience, I don’t think God intended the path of following one’s heart to quite lead to making things up as we go along. There is a difference between refusing to do something out of conscience, or because our busy modern lives keep us from our faith, and on the other hand making something up and doing it, and calling it Jewish “because I say it is”.
Within the Talmidi Jewish community, levels of observance vary. Liberals will ignore certain things only out of conscience, or because they genuinely find them difficult to do. Even a Yeshuinist (ultra-liberal) would never consider making something up.
Torah is not difficult. Even Liberal Talmidis observe more mitzvot from Torah than Liberal Rabbinical Jews do. When we observe our heritage, and try our best to follow as many mitzvot as possible, it makes us one with our history, and heightens the sense of wonder and of the holiness of YHVH our God.
In our willingness to try our best to observe God’s commandments – even if it isn’t perfect – and in our gentle, humble and compassionate encouragement towards others to do the same, Talmidi Jews feel that the righteousness of our faith is upheld:
“whoever observes them, and teaches them to others, shall be called great in the kingdom of God. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees and scribes, you’ll never find the kingdom of God” (Mt 5:19-20)
Extending the remit of Torah
There is some suggestion that Yeshua` actually favoured an extension of the reach of Torah.
As a prophet, in line with all the Jewish prophets who went before him, he felt that God was against a simple, mechanical observance of Torah – the mere doing, with no thought to the heart behind it. Yeshua` therefore favoured the internalising of Torah, or “writing the Law on our hearts”, so that we would keep our thoughts in check before they even got transferred into actions.
For example, seriously contemplating killing someone was just as bad as actually killing them. Verbal violence was just as bad as physical violence. The thought itself poisoned the mind; if we controlled our thoughts, then we could better control our actions.
This is not a call to guilt every time we are angry with someone. It’s not a case of us being punished by God for our very thoughts. Instead, we simply need to have the strength of mind to boldly look at our own individual thoughts and say, “Hey, listen to myself, I’m seriously considering knocking that guy’s face off! I know he made me angry, and he was wrong – he did wrong – but I shouldn’t think like this. I want to be a better person, I want the God who made me to be proud of me. Just calm down, be rational about this; if I’m calm and strong, I can show that I was in the right.”
Yeshua` tried to demonstrate this – the seriousness of harbouring dark thoughts – by saying that even anger should be judged by the Great Sanhedrin (Mt 5:21) This was of course a metaphorical exaggeration, since the Great Sanhedrin could only judge Kings, High Priests and false Prophets:
“…whoever says to their neighbour “Worthless moron!” shall be answerable to the Great Sanhedrin, and whoever says “Fool!” shall be cast into the outer darkness!” (Mt 5:22)
In the days of the Temple, if we had sinned, we could make a sin offering to atone for what we had done. However, like the prophets before him, Yeshua` said this was not enough. If we had sinned against our neighbour, we actually had to make up with our neighbour before the sin offering was to mean anything:
“First make peace with your friend, and only then can you return and make your sin offering” (Mt 5:24)
And in the case of someone else’s obvious wrong-doing, Yeshua` actually upheld the advice of Torah:
“If your neighbour sins, point out their fault privately, and if they repent, you must forgive them” (Mt 18:15, Lk 17:3)
This comes from Leviticus 19:17 “Reprove your neighbour frankly, so that you will not share in their guilt”.
The general Christian perception that Yeshua` was against Torah is simply unsustainable. Christian ignorance of what the Oral Law is, has led many ordinary Christians to falsely condemn Torah as a burden.
Neither is the positive Jewish assertion that Yeshua` was actually a Pharisee sustainable either. He cannot have taught Pharisaism if he was so much against the Oral Law.
With an honest knowledge of Jewish life and Jewish history, only one conclusion is possible: that Yeshua` was most definitely for Torah – the written Law – and against Pharisaic commandments and laws – the Oral Law.
The Jewish religion has been badly maligned over the last 2,000 years, and falsely so through ignorance. We have to calmly educate people to see what Yeshua` experienced of God, to appreciate what he understood of God’s message. Once they do, they will see how beautiful Torah is, and realise how much Yeshua` loved Torah.