Jewish Identity and the Torah Part 1 by Rabbi Baruch
Jewish Identity and the Torah
Being Jewish is a blessing that comes with a responsibility. In order to understand both the blessing and the responsibility one needs to study G-d’s call to Abraham in Genesis chapter 12. Abraham was born a gentile who HaShem called into a covenant and to whom He gave a special call. Although there are many aspects to this call, the most relevant one for this article is that G-d would establish, supernaturally, a new people. The important thing to remember is that this new people group had a purpose. This purpose is clearly revealed in many places throughout the Bible. In the passage dealing with Abraham’s call one reads,
“…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Genesis 12:3
G-d wanted and still wants to use the people who would be established from Abraham and Sarah to bless each and every family upon the face of the earth. This new people group eventually became known as Israel. Today the individuals who make up Israel are called Jewish. Therefore Jewish individuals have a G-d given responsibility to bless gentiles. The question which needs to be answered is how does a Jewish individual fulfill this obligation? The answer in a general sense is to be a light unto the nations. What does this mean in practicality? This is where the Torah comes into this discussion.
The phrase “to be light to the nations” implies providing illumination, i.e. revelation of divine truth. Divine truth is synonymous to the word of G-d. Hence Jewish individuals have been uniquely called by HaShem to educate the world in regard to the Scripture. Rav Shaul echoes this when he says,
“What advantage then has Jewish individuals…mainly the word of G-d was entrusted to them.” Romans 3:1-2
Why would G-d entrust the word of G-d to Jewish people with the instruction to illuminate gentiles with it? For the purpose of gentiles embracing the word of G-d and applying it to their lives as well. This conclusion is so basic it is amazing that it escapes the consideration of so many people. Jewish identity is not based in culture or environment, but in divine revelation. This identity is not reserved for the Jewish people, but entrusted to them to be demonstrated and embraced by all the families of the earth. Let us review some of the most relevant biblical passages that speak to this issue.
In order to understand the subject of Jewish identity one must begin with Abraham. Abraham (Abram) was born a gentile and HaShem called him to respond to His covenant promises; that is, to exercise faith. It was faith that made Abram, Abraham or in other words a gentile into a Jew. This faith expresses a change in one’s life from following one’s own will, to now following HaShem’s will. Man’s will is rooted in the flesh while G-d’s will is rooted in the Spirit. This is why Abraham was called to be circumcised. Circumcision is a removal of skin from the body. What happens when skin is removed from the body? That piece of skin will die. It is not a coincidence that the one who performs the circumcision is required by Jewish law to bury the foreskin. Why? Because the commandment of circumcision teaches that faith which began Abraham “conversion” is ultimately for the purpose of bringing death to the flesh, i.e. the carnal / sinful nature.
Not only was Abraham circumcised but so, too, were all the male slaves in his house (see Gen. 17:23). Why was this? This was in order to show that Abraham was called to bring this faith, which causes the death of the flesh, to all those under his sphere of influence. The account of Passover is very similar in the fact that in order to observe the commandments of the festival one had to be circumcised (see Exodus 12:43-51). Once again one learns from the account of the Exodus from Egypt that not only the natural offspring of Abraham came out of Egypt, but there was also a mixed multitude with them (see Exodus 12:38). According to rabbinical sources those from Abraham’s literal offspring (600,000 Hebrew males) made up a minority of the total number of Hebrews who were in Egypt during this time. This minority was joined by a multitude of gentiles who were moved by divine revelation, i.e. the manifestation HaShem’s providence seen in the plagues, to enter into a covenant relationship with G-d via circumcision and partake of the Passover and receive redemption.
This mixed multitude was never mentioned again in the Bible. Why was this? This was because the mixed multitude was integrated into the Children of Israel as full members of the people of G-d. Although they were not all biological descendants of Abraham they all had one thing in common—they shared a common Passover experience. It was this same group, descendants of Abraham and the mixed multitude that arrived at Mt. Sinai as one body to receive the Torah. Did HaShem make any distinction between them? No, He made no distinction what so ever.
Chassidic Judaism teaches that the world was created for two things, Israel and the Torah. This is not the case! Israel was created supernaturally by G-d in order that through this people, the gentiles would be blessed by HaShem. Hence, Israel must also be defined by its relationship and responsibility to the gentiles. Unfortunately this truth has been lost by all expressions of Judaism today. One might raise the objection and ask, “what about Messianic Judaism”? The verdict is still out concerning this question, but there seems to be a shift within Messianic Judaism to the same error of traditional Judaism. It is for this reason that this brief article was written.
In regard to the second part of the Chassidic view that the world was created for Torah, one must ask the question, why was the Torah given? There are multiple reasons why the Torah was given, but we will only investigate one of them. The Torah reveals to the people of G-d His standards for living. In other words, the Torah reveals that which is right and that which is wrong in regard to one’s behavior. To what group of people was it given? If one responds that this question has already been answered, it is Israel. This answer is insufficient. Why? This is because HaShem did not want to give the Torah to the Children of Israel (including the mixed multitude) in their current state of being. This is seen in Exodus chapter 20.
In this passage, beginning in verse 18 the people who were at Mt. Sinai saw various supernatural activities, one of which was the mountain became engulfed in smoke. Due to these occurrences, and what Moses would reveal in verse 20, namely that HaShem was approaching the people, the Children of Israel were very frightened. In verse 19, they responded to Moses that he should speak with them and that they would listen, but they did not want G-d to address them directly because they feared that they would die. Why would this be? Remember the context for this section. The people had just heard the Ten Commandments and understood two vital aspects: the first is the Holiness of G-d and the second are His expectations for His people. The people were convicted by their sinfulness and felt that if this Holy G-d drew near to them that they would die. In verse 20, Moses states that this is not why G-d is drawing near to the people. He is not coming to destroy but rather to cause a new reality to come upon the people. This new reality consists of two things: First is that His fear would always be before them. This means that they would understand His priorities and what they should do. The second thing Moses reveals is that G-d was going to transform them into a new condition where they could not sin. Obviously, knowing the will of G-d and being unable to sin is what one should desire. Why was G-d willing to do this? Once again, context is the key. He was giving them at Mt. Sinai the Torah and thereby teaching that man, in his natural state, cannot keep the Torah.
That which is most disappointing is what occurred in verse 21,
“And the people stood at a distance and Moses approached the fog, for G-d was there.”
This verse is seen as Israel’s rejection of what G-d wanted to do at Mt. Sinai. The transformation that HaShem wanted to bring upon Israel was not realized and Israel remained in a natural state. In this condition Israel could not keep the Torah.
People ask then why would G-d go ahead and give to them the Torah? The answer to this question is found in the end of the book of Joshua. In chapter 24 of Joshua, Joshua is approaching his death. He invites the people to renew the covenant that Moses made with the people, i.e. the Torah as a basis of having a relationship with the Living G-d. After Joshua speaks to the people about their history from the days of Abraham to the present, he commands the people in verse 14,
“Now fear the L-rd and serve Him in purity and truth and remove the gods which your forefathers served on the other side of the river and in Egypt. You are to serve HaShem.”
In verse 16 the people answered in the affirmative that they wanted to renew their covenant relationship with HaShem via the Torah. It is most significant that Joshua tells the people, beginning in verse 19, that this is not a possibility. Joshua is the only one who understood why HaShem had given the Torah. The reason was to show them that in their present condition that they could not please G-d and would fail in serving Him. They needed to be transformed.
The Lubavicher rebbe once gave a teaching on a saying which he introduced to the people of Israel. This saying that the rebbe taught is “Mashiach (Messiah) Now”. In his teaching, he gave several examples of times where the Children of Israel should have beseeched HaShem to send the Messiah. One of these times occurred in Joshua 24. Joshua was teaching the people that the problem with a covenantal relationship with G-d, based upon the Torah, is not the Torah but the people. This is why Joshua loudly protested the people’s enthusiasm to accept the terms of the Torah. Joshua states in verse 19,
“And Joshua said to the people, ‘You are not able to serve the L-rd, for He is Holy, He is a jealous G-d, He will not forgive your transgressions and sins.'”
This verse presupposes the people’s inability to keep the Torah. Joshua knew the people could not keep the covenant. So why did he offer it to them? In the words of the Lubavicher rebbe, so the people could say “We want Mashiach now”. Messiah does the work of redemption and brings about a new reality to those who receive Him through faith. Such individuals are transformed by this faith.
This is why Paul writes, in Romans 7:14, that the Torah is spiritual. If one continues to read in this chapter, he will find that one, in his natural state, is condemned by the Torah. Paul says in verse 24,
“Woe is me, wretched man that I am, who will save me from this body of death.”
This verse makes it very clear that man, in his natural state, has no ability to obey the Torah. In the next verse, Paul reveals the only hope for mankind. He writes,
“Thanks be to G-d concerning our L-rd the Messiah Yeshua…” Romans 7:25
In the same way that G-d wanted to bring about a transformation of the Children of Israel at Mt. Sinai, so too is there a transformation through faith in Messiah Yeshua. Ultimately, followers of Yeshua will not experience the total outcome of this transformation until we receive our new/glorified bodies, by means of the Holy Spirit, Whom every believer receives. However it is through the Holy Spirit that every believer receives the potential to obey G-d and keep His Word.
It is important that one understands the patterns given within scripture. All would agree that the Jewish nation was born by means of the Exodus from Egypt, i.e., the Passover. Judaism teaches that Shavuot, the holiday which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, should be viewed as a marriage ceremony between the Children of Israel and HaShem. Hence, according to Judaism, the Jewish people are inherently linked to G-d as His people through these two events.
There are those who say that only those who are the physical offspring of these people have been called to embrace this heritage; i.e., a Jewish lifestyle rooted in the Torah. However, it is not a coincidence that Messiah laid down His life on the 14th day of Nissan (Passover) and is called by Paul our Passover Lamb. Nor is it a coincidence that the Holy Spirit was first poured out upon those who accepted Yeshua as their Passover Lamb on Shavuot. In the same way that Passover and Shavuot created the congregation of Israel from an Old Testament perspective, the death of Messiah on Passover and the giving of the Holy Spirit on Shavuot also create the New Testament people of G-d.
Today, within the Messianic movement, there is a growing belief that Jewish lifestyle should be reserved for those physical descendents of G-d’s Old Testament people, i.e., Jewish individuals alone. There are problems with this view. First it has already been stated that the “Jewish lifestyle” was one given to Jewish individuals for the specific purpose of demonstrating to the gentiles how G-d wants all people to behave. Second, those physical descendents are not able, in their natural state, to obey G-d. It is only the believers in Yeshua, who by means of the Holy Spirit can obey the righteousness of the Torah,
“…That the righteousness of the Torah should be fulfilled in us, who do not walk after the flesh, but rather the Spirit.” Romans 8:4
This verse makes it clear that it is believers who are called and are the only ones who have been equipped by the Holy Spirit to embrace, demonstrate, and fulfill a biblical lifestyle. As Paul states in the verse from Romans chapter 8 this lifestyle is inherently linked to the Torah.
People talk today about Torah observance when in reality the Torah Law is not even in force today. The rabbis acknowledge this and state that it is rabbinical law which is incumbent upon Jewish individuals. They correctly point out that without a Temple that the Torah cannot be observed. So what does this mean to a follower of Messiah Yeshua?
The believer, Jew and gentile alike, is called to apply the word of G-d to his life and fulfill the righteousness of the Torah, not in the oldness of the letter, but in the newness of the Spirit (see Romans 7:6). How does one do this? What are the implications of this theologically and in practicality?
These questions will be the subject of the next article.
Author: Dr. Baruch Korman