What Do We Mean by ‘Torah Observance’?

(Parts taken from The Judeo-Christian and The Upside-Down Kingdom)

This is obviously one of the central questions for every person looking into the idea of undertaking a Judeo-Christian lifestyle. To answer it, we need some background information defining the Torah; only then can we begin to delineate what it means to ‘observe’ it.

What are we talking about when we say, ‘The Torah’?

YHWH’s Glory on Mt. Sinai

YHWH’s Glory on Mt. Sinai

The prevailing view of Christians is that the Torah is synonymous with the Law of Moses given on Mt. Sinai, which spans Exodus 20-23, with additional laws from Exodus 24-31, the entirety of Leviticus, and the majority of both the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy. Generally speaking, Jews refer to the entirety of the first five books of the Bible as the Torah; they are named this way as a collection in the Tanakh (the ‘Old Testament‘: Torah + Neviim [Prophets] + Ketuvim [Writings] = T+N+Kh = Tanakh). However, most traditional Jews today believe that there was another set of oral instructions passed down from YHWH to Moses in addition to what was written in the first five books of the Bible. This ‘oral Torah’ makes up much of the tradition of modern Judaism.

Whether or not the ‘oral Torah’ originated in Moses’ time is a matter of debate, but we do know that at the very latest, the idea was present during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (c. 450 B.C.). Most likely, the traditions which make up the ‘oral Torah’ began during the era of Babylonian captivity (586 B.C. - 516 B.C.); the Jews under Ezra and Nehemiah simply began collecting and writing these down in their day.

A few centuries later, the Maccabean Crisis and subsequent Hasmonean dynasty (165 B.C.-63 B.C.) set the foundation for the religious climate of Jesus’ day. (See Hanukkah in the Holidays section for more details.) It is believed that the Pharisees, the Saducees, and the Essenes of Jesus’ day all sprang up overnight during the Hasmonean period, due to the Hasmoneans’ takeover of the high priesthood as a political position. Though they were not political parties per se, they acted in a way very similarly to Republicans, Democrats, and Independents today in America.

Jesus arguing with the Pharisees

Jesus arguing with the Pharisees

The main arguments they had with one another stemmed around how they interpreted the Torah, the priesthood, and which commandments were binding on whom and how. What is most important to the story is that the Pharisees were the leading party of the day; they believed that the ‘oral Torah’ superseded what was written in the Bible, and that every Jew was bound by what the rabbis declared.

When Jesus arrived in history, he often confronted the Pharisees about the ‘oral Torah’, saying that many of these traditions ironically contradict the written Word of YHWH, and this is actually the main point of contention between them (outside of His claims to be the divine Messiah, of course). Because of the traditionally Christian definition of the Torah, most Christians do not realize that question of Gentile adherence to the ‘oral Torah’ is the main topic of Acts 15, and the subsequent conflict between Paul and the Judaizers (who were Pharisees that believed Gentile Christians should undergo proselyte conversion to obey the ‘oral Torah’). Instead, most Christians have been taught that the New Testament is speaking about the written Torah as being abolished. (See my article, Paul Misinterpreted? for more details.)

After the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple in 70 A.D. in which 1 million Jews were slaughtered by the Romans with the rest being scattered to the four corners of the Roman Empire, the Pharisees were the majority of non-Messianic survivors; they became the leaders of what is now Orthodox Judaism. The 1943 edition of the Jewish Encyclopedia is clear about this fact:

“The Jewish religion as it is today traces its descent, without a break, through all the centuries, from the Pharisees. Their leading ideas and methods found expression in a literature of enormous extent, of which a very great deal is still in existence. The Talmud is the largest and most important single piece of that literature—and the study of it is essential for any real understanding of Pharisaism.”

The Schottenstein Edition of the Mishnah   only  , 22 volumes

The Schottenstein Edition of the Mishnah only, 22 volumes

(Most of the rest of the Jews that survived were Messianic, and after the dispersion from Israel, they were absorbed into Gentile Christianity.) About a century after the destruction of the Temple, the descendants of the Pharisees began working on the codification of the ‘oral Torah.’ These became the Talmud. (There are actually two Talmuds, the Jerusalem Talmud, which is older [c. 300 A.D.] and carries less authority among rabbis, and the Babylonian Talmud, which was completed around A.D. 500 and is larger in composition). Each Talmud is organized by subject matter with the Mishnah (the actual oral tradition being discussed) and the Gemara (the rabbinic discussion on the subject). Altogether, they are collectively referred to as ‘the Talmud’; on paper, this is a 20+-volume set like the Encyclopedia Brittanica that would take years to read, let alone study with seriousness.

During the Middle Ages, a prominent rabbi by the name of Maimonides categorized all the traditions of the Talmud and arrived at 613 commandments (mitzvot) that he believed summarized it. Though the number of 613 was hinted at by a few earlier rabbis, there was not a unified list, nor was this a major concern. It was not until Maimonides’ work that the current list of 613 mitzvot became standard; this list now forms the basis of modern Jewish Law and is the bedrock of what ‘Torah observance’ means to a Talmudic Jew. While Jewish tradition has certainly evolved over the millennia since the days of the Babylonian captivity, the ‘613 laws’ of the Talmud—and therefore Jewish tradition—has its unbroken origin in the ‘oral Torah’.

So What Does this Mean for Us?

Talmudic Jews (all Rabbinic Jews except Karaites, Kabbalists, and Messianics) believe that the Talmud carries more weight than the Bible, much like Catholics believe the teachings and traditions of the Church supersede the Bible in authority. This presents a necessity for Judeo-Christians to define what we mean when we say we are ‘Torah observant’.

  • A Talmudic Jew would say that the Torah is the first five books of the Bible: Bereshit (Genesis), Shemot (Exodus), Vayikra (Leviticus), Bamidbar (Numbers), and Devarim (Deuteronomy); HOWEVER, they believe that the Talmud—directly derived from the ‘oral Torah’—is the only possible and correct way of interpreting the written Torah. Though each of Maimonides’ 613 mitzvot can loosely point to at least one verse in the written Torah, the mitzvot are based on the traditions—’fences’ placed by rabbinic opinion which surround the original commandment rather than God’s words themselves. For them, to observe the Torah means to follow the traditions in the Talmud.

  • A Judeo-Christian agrees that the Torah is the first five books of the Bible; however, we stick to what is written in the text, as Jesus and the early Apostles did. Furthermore, as partakers in the New Covenant (see our Statement of Faith for more details), we believe that the written Torah is correctly interpreted through the perspective and work of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and eternal priesthood. For a Judeo-Christian, to observe the Torah means to simply follow the instructions of the written Torah, taking the content of the entire Bible including the work of Jesus into account.

We furthermore believe that the Torah was never intended to be a laundry list of commandments creating a debt that must be paid in order to satisfy the holiness of God. Rather, the Torah is a description of God’s holiness, to which He calls all people who worship Him in order to represent Him as ‘the kingdom of priests and the holy nation in the earth’ (Exodus 19:3-6, 1 Peter 2:4-10). These commands are not meant to be viewed so much as simple restrictions on bad behavior or a series of good deeds we must perform, but the outflow of our relationship with God as He circumcises our hearts by the indwelling Holy Spirit in the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34, Ezekiel 36:22-38, Romans 2, Deut. 10:16, Lev. 26:41, Jer. 4:4, Jer. 6:10, Jer. 9:26, Ezek. 44:7-9). We know also that the Torah is God’s design for the ordering of the world, and so there are great benefits and blessings that we are rewarded with when we live His way. As we live our lives with a heart attitude to worship and obey God, He restores to us His heart of love—the image He created mankind to display—and we come to obey the commandments of the Torah properly as a result in the process of yielding to His will.

Since we believe the Bible is ‘our final rule of faith and practice’, how does this make us different from, say, a Protestant Evangelical Christian—whose statements of faith often include those very words? The difference lies in our understanding of how the New Covenant has affected the Sinai Covenant: most other Christians believe the New Covenant has abolished the Sinai Covenant, taking its place; Judeo-Christians believe the New Covenant has adapted the Sinai Covenant to the reality of the Messiah’s work and actually allows it to achieve its promises. For us to observe the Torah as the kingdom of priests and holy nation as a testimony to the world is to enter into the prophetic destiny for which YHWH chose the people of Israel, into whom Gentile worshipers of YHWH are grafted (Romans 11).

Does the fact that the Talmud was derived from ‘oral Torah’ mean that EVERY tradition that has come out of the Talmud is bad? No. Some Jewish traditions are practical, healthy, and appropriate ways to walk out the teaching of Scripture (the same is true for some Christian traditions as well). In fact, Jesus Himself used some of these traditions prophetically (i.e. the Afikomen and third cup of the Passover as symbols of His body and blood). The key is to know YHWH well enough—and to know the Scriptures well enough—to understand where these traditions may deviate in spirit or in actuality from the Biblical text, and to know that we are not bound by them. We can and should appreciate how Jews—and Christians—have dealt with issues in the Scriptures and have attempted to walk these out practically over the centuries. If these do not contradict the actual Biblical text, there is nothing wrong with them, and they may serve to inform our beliefs; but we make our stand on the Word of YHWH.