Establishing the Boundaries of a Biblical Worldview

Is there a higher level of moral consciousness?

When Yeshua HaMashiach walked on earth and conducted his ministry the gospels record many occasions when he confronted the Pharisees. He accused them of using their traditions to overturn the true meaning of the Torah. He did not hold much respect for the opinion of the Torah-teachers. Thus, Yeshua insisted, “unless your righteousness is far greater than the Torah-teachers and the P’rushim (Pharisees), you will certainly not enter the Kingdom of Heaven!”[1] In other words, he expected his true followers would do better at understanding and obeying the Torah than the Scribes and Pharisees. That’s equivalent to saying that those who understand Yeshua’s teaching on the Torah and follow it will be far ahead of many of the pastors, professors, and teachers who claim to be following the Scriptures. And the criterion? Righteousness, obedience to Torah.

What brought them into conflict was their different methods of interpretation.

To this day there are those who remain confused about Yeshua and the way he confronted the religious leaders of his people, the Israelites. The confusion is found among Christians who mistakenly think the problem with Judaism is that it is bound to the Torah whereas Christians are released from the Torah. A similar confusion exists among many Jews who mistakenly think Yeshua was not the promised Messiah because he did not accept the Torah as explained by the official Jewish interpreters.

The truth of the matter is that both the Jews and the Messiah held a high view of the Torah. What brought them into conflict was their different methods of interpretation.

What is the reason for this confusion? R. Travers Herford, in his book, Talmud and Apocrypha,[2] outlines the background to the development of Judaism following the Babylonian exile. Herford identifies the importance of Ezra’s call back to Torah, and the oath that the Jewish people took at that time, the ‘binding covenant’ (Neh. 9:38). As a result, the Jews developed a high view of the Torah. Since there was no Old Testament canon at the time of Ezra, Herford recognizes the importance of the Torah which “ranked above all the rest of Scripture.” Thus, “the Torah stands as the primary though not the only source of the later Jewish ethical teaching.”[3] Over time, other documents obtained importance in Jewish ethical teaching, the documents that form the Old Testament, the Prophets and the Writings. But there would be more.

Why, then, the hostility between Yeshua and the Pharisees, given their formal acceptance of the importance of Torah? What they did not agree upon was the method of interpretation. It was their respective hermeneutical approach to the Scriptures that divided the Jews from the Messiah, and continues to do so today, just as it also divides well-meaning Christians from the Messiah for exactly the same reason. Unfortunately, many Christians follow the Pharisees rather than the Messiah on this issue.

What became a matter of importance for Judaism was the idea that some of the Scriptural content was ethically higher than other parts. Although all the components of Scripture were considered equally divine, they were not of equal importance. Thus, Yeshua’s words about tithing mint, dill and cumin, but neglecting the weightier matters, highlighted this approach. This idea also lay behind the question, “Which is the most important commandment?” The religious teachers in Yeshua’s day were so convinced of the idea of a hierarchy in the Torah they had this question posed to him, waiting for the answer that would “prove” he was not the Messiah. Yeshua’s reply, by pointing to the summary of the Torah, indicates they are all equally important. The Pharisees knew his, but they still rejected the Messiah’s reply to them.

Judaism developed not only the idea that some Scripture was of a higher moral value than other parts, but that their ‘advancing ethical consciousness’ was capable of determining which were the higher ethical components. As Herford says, “they naturally drew from it that to which their own ethical consciousness responded.”[4] What did they do with those parts that their ethical conscience did not respond to?

Judaism developed not only the idea that some Scripture was of a higher moral value than other parts, but that their “advancing ethical consciousness” was capable of determining which were the higher ethical components.

Judaism developed two methods of approaching God’s law, the halachah and haggadah. These two systems revolve around the idea of obligation. When the Rabbis made halachah, it was necessary to accept and obey. Haggadah, on the other hand, carried no such obligation. Even halachah, however, was subject to change. It was halachah that the Messiah attacked so mercilously. “Woe to you, you blind guides! You say, `If someone swears by the Temple, he is not bound by his oath; but if he swears by the gold in the Temple, he is bound.’ You blind fools! Which is more important? the gold? or the Temple which makes the gold holy?”[5] Halachic declarations were an attempt to explain how the Torah should be kept, the primary reason for the obligatory nature of halachah. Yet Yeshua challenges their halachic teachings in this passage in Matthew’s gospel.

In an effort to “comply” with Torah, the Pharisees undermined the real meaning of Torah. In the early Maccabean period, Jose ben Joezer was influential in developing “the idea that the Torah contained more than the written word, that there were Torah which never had been written, and which, therefore, was none the less valid though no written text contained or confirmed it.”[6] Hence the formal introduction of the Unwritten Torah, and those who proclaimed its teaching “did so on the authority of their own reason and conscience, and not by seeking their authority in the written text.”[7] They did this, even though they had little foundation for it. But since the religious life of the people became less associated with the written Torah, Unwritten Torah became the “replacement theology” of Judaism, and hence the confrontation with the real author of the written Torah, the Messiah.

Thus, Unwritten Torah “transformed the Torah from being only a written document already ancient and in danger of becoming obsolete into a continuous revelation keeping pace with the ages. . . .”[8] The view had already been developed that there were no ethical standards that could remain valid for all cultures in all ages. The Unwritten Torah “made possible an ethical advance in the teaching given . . . by actually annulling an express command in the written Torah and replacing it by a halachah in accordance with a higher moral standard.”[9] In other words, the Unwritten Torah was not just an attempt to apply the Torah in a given situation; it was, rather, a process that could replace, if necessary, written Torah. The Unwritten Torah became the Talmud. But, as Rodkinson says, “The Talmud is not a commentary on the Bible.”[10] Such an approach “threw upon the teachers the responsibility of giving, as Torah, that which in their own mind and conscience was the highest, truest, and best.”[11] Their idea of a higher moral standard opposed the Messiah’s insistence that Torah was the standard and that he, as the author, was therefore the living Torah and the true interpreter of written Torah.

It is not too difficult to see how Judaism became known for its lack of uniformity in belief in the broader ethical issues. Apart from the Shema, acceptance of the unity of God, beliefs were not necessarily uniform, even though the idea was to enforce halachic rulings. Thus, says Herford, “there never has been in Judaism any declaration of belief holding the same position as the Creed holds in the Christian religions.”[12] When there is no fixed theology, there cannot be a Creed—an ‘I believe’—that has broad acceptance.

Similar to its creedal position, Judaism has never developed a systematic theology, and this is considered a favorable response to Scripture. They do have the Talmud, the outcome of the methods identified by Herford. But the Talmud is not a commentary on the Bible in the same manner a systematic theology is an attempt to explain Scripture. The Talmud is not so much the decisions of the rabbis as it is a compilation of the debates between the rabbis. As a consequence, the Talmud “permits no shackles, no fetters to be placed upon it. It knows no authority but conscience and reason.”[13] It cannot be tied down even by written Torah, apparently.

It is the opinion of some scholars that the western Greek mind has a wrong emphasis on seeking ‘correct answers’ in contrast to the Judaic mind under the influence of the Talmud which is oriented towards debate and dissension. This argument, an ad hominem of the weakest kind, attempts to slur Christianity with the charge of being Greek, rather than Hebrew. The proof? That Christianity entertains the idea of certainty in its doctrines. In the Talmudic view the idea of a ‘correct answer’ is not so important. To the modern mind this sounds like an exercise in Hegelianism, with an emphasis on thesis, antithesis, then synthesis. The synthesis becomes a new thesis which has its own antithesis and the result is another synthesis, which begins the process all over again, ad nauseam.

But this attempt to pit a Greek view of ‘correct answer’ against an alleged Biblical view of constant synthesis, falls apart when those who reject the Greek idea end up in the ER. In that place they expect the healthcare providers to have the Greek mind and have the ‘correct solution’ to their medical condition, not just as an intellectual exercise, but as a way of life and practice in medicine. Thus, the proposal presents a Jewish version of two-kingdom theology that is unique. Accept one way in theology, but in the medical rooms accept another way. It is a form of Greek thinking itself, neoplatonism.

Christians, it is suggested, should emulate Judaism and come to the Scriptures in the manner they do. The Hebrew mindset does not seek certainty in its doctrine and neither should Christians. Those who claim this practice is Greek, however, use exactly the same idea to make their statement. This same so-called Hebrew mind that rejects “certainty” is absolutely certain there should be no certainty. This is nuts! Once you go down this path you create your own contradictions. There’s no certainty in doctrine? Are you certain about that? Because if you are, you simply contradicted the idea that there cannot be, or should not be, certainty. The opposition of the alleged Greek mind to the Hebrew mind on the matter of certainty is merely a rejection of an epistemology that begins with God and the Scriptures.

The rabbinical suggestion there can be no ethical standard that crosses all cultures and times, is a return to Eden. It is a rejection of the permanent validity of Torah so that man, even in the name of Torah, can present his own law. This is exactly what Eve thought and how she behaved. To suggest that the application of the ethical standards are changed over time can create unnecessary confusion. They are certainly expanded so that, for example, the biblical teaching on restitution can be applied to a taxi driver in New York or Bombay in 2012 while at the same time insisting they remain valid for sheep herders in Australia in 2012 A.D. or in Israel in 1,000 B.C.

Or take the requirement of just weights and measures (Lev. 19:35f). Is this one of the instructions that is no longer applicable today in any part of the world? Or is it a valid requirement that merchants everywhere, in every culture and every age, deliver what they promise?

The Torah contains Ten Major Headings, the Ten Commandments, and the remainder of the instructions have been described as “case law” examples. These examples of application of the Ten Headings remain as valid today as they were when they were given, otherwise they can no longer serve as examples, in this case, example of divine origin. So while it is true that the Torah needs to be applied in every culture in every age, it is the fixity of the biblical law that allows the proper application of the principles of the Torah into other periods. But that does not seem to be what Judaism is attempting to do, certainly while some people suggest that any kind of unmovable certainty in Scriptural understanding is the wrong approach.

The view about Torah and systematic theology, however, reveals a large ignorance on the part of the anti-systematic proponents. All thinking is systematic. The only question is whether a person’s systematics will be biblical or not. The Pharisees and Scribes who rejected the Messiah opposed his “systematic theology” with their version of systematics.

It needs to be remembered that not all Jews today, such as the Karaites, or in the time of the Messiah accepted the idea and application of Unwritten Torah. But the Sadducees were the minority group within Judaism at the time of the Messiah, eventually to become extinct sometime after Herod’s destruction of the Temple. There is speculation that the later Karaites had a connection with the Sadducees.

To come to the Scriptures in the same manner as the Pharisees in Jesus’ time is to invite the same condemnation. “If you understood Moses and the Prophets, you would know who I am,” declares Yeshua. You can imagine the confusion in the minds of the teachers at that time. They were the experts on Moses—self-declared experts—teaching the people of Israel how to obey the commandments. Why should they listen to a carpenter from Nazareth? They knew how to tithe mint, dill and cumin; they knew how to make rules about when an oath had to be kept; but in the process lost sight of the weightier matters of the law.

Yet Yeshua’s biting condemnations were never withdrawn. While the Pharisees held to the idea that they only needed to draw from Torah ‘that which their own ethical consciousness responded to’, you begin to the see the problem. Judaism had effectively found yet another way for man to be in control of determining truth and error, right and wrong, good and evil. Man was still not prepared to sit in absolute subjection to the word of God as the supreme authority. Rather, it was his ‘advancing ethical consciousness’ that equipped the Jew with the ability to create a hierarchy out of God’s commandments. Such a process allows man to sit as the final arbiter of what is and is not important. And this is what brought the conflict between HaMashiach and the Jews, and the words of Jeshua: “by your tradition you make null and void the word of God!”[14]

Hillel’s attempt to explain that the sabbatical year release of debts did not apply to commercial transactions is echoed in Christianity’s later attempts to apply the same ‘logic’ to the usury prohibition. Initiating a fear that a complete prohibition on usury would ruin business, it soon became apparent that usury was not so much an anti-interest law as it was a ‘keep the interest reasonable’ requirement. The result is the modern financial world, riddled with financial immorality that would make Hillel blush.[15]

The same situation exists today in Christianity. You do not have to look very far or wide to find Christians playing the equivalent of ‘pin the tail on the donkey’ when it comes to selecting which of God’s commandments is valid and how far they should be taken today. For many it is time to dust off the old coat of written Torah and explore the new universe of Unwritten Torah. This becomes the ‘higher ethics’ of contemporary Christianity which too has unhinged itself from written Torah.

The Pharisees were flabbergasted at Yeshua’s suggestion they did not really understand Torah and were ‘blind guides’ to the people. Their response to his accusations? Kill him! Throughout his ministry, the Scribes and Pharisees confronted Yeshua with issues out of the Torah, knowing that if he rejected the Torah, he would not be the Messiah. Every time they did this they lost out because of the wisdom of the Messiah’s response to their challenge. He taught them as one having wisdom, and gave them the true interpretation of Torah. Today, however, the blind guides continue to use their ‘advancing ethical consciousness’ to teach people how to creatively select from Torah. In the process, they kill both the Torah and the lordship of the Messiah.

The contemporary Jewish rejection of Yeshua HaMaschiach is predicated on the idea that he did not interpret Torah properly and therefore cannot be the Messiah. They are still not willing to accept the Messiah’s method of interpreting Scripture.

The words of Yeshua, in response to the Pharisees of his day, are just as valid today: “Blind guides!–straining out a gnat, meanwhile swallowing a camel. … [Y]ou appear to people from the outside to be good and honest, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and far from Torah.[16] This is why he could tell his disciples, “whatever they tell you, take care to do it. But don’t do what they do, because they talk but don’t act.”[17] In spite of all their halachah, their attempt to explain how to keep the law, Yeshua suggests the best thing to be done is to ignore them because their teaching, after all is said and done, is not a way to really keep Torah but to step around its requirements. You see the same kind of teaching in Christian circles with its emphasis on “do this but don’t do that” is often merely an effort in self-aggrandizement. Meanwhile abortion, divorce, diet, debt, usury, or monetary debasement are not considered important enough to warrant a mention.

The Jewish rejection of Yeshua as the Messiah is thus a rejection of his method of interpreting Scripture. Thus, he could throw this challenge to them: “But don’t think that it is I who will be your accuser before the Father. Do you know who will accuse you? Moshe, the very one you have counted on! For if you really believed Moshe, you would believe me; because it was about me that he wrote. But if you don’t believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”[18]

In the name of Torah, they were “far from Torah”. They had interpreted Torah in such a way that they did not recognize or understand what Moses had written about the Messiah.

These words of condemnation from the Messiah should cause us to consider our own attitude to Torah. Do we, in the name of Torah, place ourselves “far from Torah”? Am I under the condemnation of being a “blind guide”?

What would Yeshua have to say to Christians and Jews today to get them to reconsider their views on both the words of the Torah and the Messiah’s method of interpretation?

Footnotes    (↵back returns to text)
  1. Matt. 5:20.↵back
  2. New York: Ktav Publishing House, [1933] 1971.↵back
  3. Herford, pp. 8,9.↵back
  4. Herford, p. 12.↵back
  5. Matt. 23:16,17↵back
  6. Herford, p. 67.↵back
  7. Herford, p. 70.↵back
  8. Herford, p. 68.↵back
  9. Herford, p. 73.↵back
  10. Michael L. Rodkinson, introduction to The Babylonian Talmud (Kindle Edition: B&R Samizdat Express, n.d., originally published 1903 by the Boston New Talmud Publishing Company).↵back
  11. Herford, p.68f.↵back
  12. Herford, p. 54.↵back
  13. Rodkinson, The Babylonian Talmud↵back
  14. Matt. 15:6.↵back
  15. For an explanation of usury and who might be outside the usury prohibition, see Scott Mooney’s excellent Usury:Destroyer of Nations (Theopolis, 1988).↵back
  16. Matt. 23:24, 28↵back
  17. Matt. 23:3.↵back
  18. John 5:45-47.↵back
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