Halakha for Communities

Shabbat, September 3, 2016

Halakha, though traditionally thought of as Jewish law, literally means “the way to walk.”  It is the way that a Jewish community walks out the Torah—Jewish life in practice. In practice, there are many variations of halakha, reflecting many different Jewish communities. As Messianic believers—who love the Torah because it is God’s word—we may also want to define or at least discuss a halakha for our community. V’eemru? (And let us say?)

In Orthodox Judaism, halakha is associated with the legal rulings of the sages and rabbis, starting with oral traditions preceding the time of Yeshua, recorded in the Talmud, and rulings of later rabbis from generation to generation.

The starting point were the 613 mitzvot (commands) of Torah; halakha provides practical application. For example, Torah commands that you shall dwell in sukkot during the Feast of Tabernacles, but gives little guidance about how to build one; halakha specifies that a sukkah must be a temporary structure in which you can look up and see the stars, it should be decorated (but no mezuzah), etc.
The precedents set by earlier sages and rabbis became the basis for subsequent rulings. But new rulings are needed for new circumstances. For example, when lamps could be turned on with a switch, is that work forbidden on Shabbat? Orthodox rabbis reasoned that electricity is like a fire and lighting a fire is forbidden on Shabbat (Exodus 35:3), so Orthodox halakha forbids turning on the lights.

Conservative rabbis, on the other hand, reasoned that the flow of electricity is more like the flow of water controlled by a tap or faucet, which is allowed on Shabbat. Nowadays, Conservative halakha allows women to be rabbis, and in 2006, the Conservative Committee on Jewish Law and Standards lifted all rabbinic prohibitions on homosexual conduct except what is explicitly forbidden in the Torah.

There are thus different halakha for the Orthodox and Conservative Jewish communities.

Such variation didn’t start there—halakha is not monolithic, even among the Orthodox. Sephardic Jews (from Spain, Mediterranean & Latin America) and Ashkenazi Jews (from Germany & eastern Europe) have different traditions, not to mention the Mizrachi (from Asia) and the Yemenite.

But since I mentioned them, I should also point out that various ultra-Orthodox sects trace variations from their most famous rabbis (in Jerusalem and NYC, different sects wear different hats), whereas modern Orthodox have simpler kippot, dispense with the black robes, etc.

Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis both hold that the body of rabbinic Jewish law is no longer normative (seen as binding) on Jews today. Emphasizing ethical monotheism, they have decided that earlier laws are remnants of an earlier stage of religious evolution, and need not be followed. Conservative rabbis regard such views as too extreme; Orthodox rabbis consider them heretical.

Local communities have different practices. For example, many modern Orthodox synagogues, recognizing that many of their members live in suburbs outside a Sabbath’s day walk, permit them to drive from their homes to within walking distance. So what about self-driving cars?

Is there a Messianic Jewish halakha?

In Matthew 16:19 and 18:18, Yeshua tells his disciples, “Whatever you forbid on earth will have been forbidden in heaven and what you permit on earth will have been permitted in heaven.”

Usually these verses are translated more literally as “bind” and “loose” on earth on heaven. The Jewish Encyclopedia, in its article on BINDING AND LOOSING (Hebrew asar ve-hittir) explains that these are rabbinical terms for ‘forbidding and permitting.’ “Josephus (Wars of the Jews 1:5:2), explains that the Pharisees ‘became the administrators of all public affairs so as to be empowered to banish and readmit whom they pleased, as well as to loose and to bind.’ The Talmud maintains that this “power and authority, vested in the rabbinical body of each age or in the Sanhedrin, received its ratification and final sanction from the celestial court of justice” (Talmud: Makkot 23b).

The Jewish Encyclopedia then notes, “In this sense Jesus, when appointing his disciples to be his successors, used the familiar formula (Matt 16:19, 18:18). By these words he virtually invested them with the same authority as that which he found belonging to the scribes and Pharisees who ‘bind heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but will not move them with one of their fingers’; that is, ‘loose them,’ as they have the power to do (Matt 23:2-4).”

In other words, while recognizing the precedents of earlier rabbis (for example in determining how to build a sukkah, etc.), Yeshua effectively transferred the authority to make halakha for the Messianic community from the Pharisees (and later rabbis) to the apostles and their successors.

The apostles did use this authority. One important example is found in Acts 15:19-20, where Jacob makes a ruling on behalf of the elders of Jerusalem, “Therefore, I judge not to trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God—but to write to them to abstain from the contamination of idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what is strangled, and from blood.”

This halakhic ruling was momentous, inasmuch as it permitted Gentiles to become members of the body of Messiah without becoming Jews, and provided a simpler halakha for the Gentile believers, so that Jews and Gentiles could be unity with respect to worship, morality and common meals.

Because of this ruling (as well as what Paul writes in Galatians and elsewhere), clearly distinguishing requirements for Jews and Gentiles, that modern Messianic Jewish leaders view the doctrine of  “One Law for all believers” as unbiblical as well as unhelpful in our witness to both the wider Jewish and Christian communities. Our mission is not to convert Gentiles into Jews, but to bear witness that Yeshua is the Messiah and Savior—to the Jew first, and also the Gentile (Romans 1:16). V’eemru?

However, new rulings are needed for new circumstances. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul gives a more nuanced ruling about meat offered to idols: 4 “Therefore concerning the eating of idol sacrifices, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no God but one…. 7 But that knowledge is not in everyone—some, so accustomed to idols up until now, eat food as an idol sacrifice; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. But food will not bring us before God. We are no worse off if we do not eat and no better off if we do eat. But watch out that this freedom of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak….”

Pagan idols didn’t eat much of the meat offered to them, so this meat would be sold in the market, and one couldn’t tell what meat had been offered to idols and what had not. So some believers believed they should avoid eating meat altogether. Hence in Romans 14:2 “the weak eats only vegetables.”

Paul gives an opinion that both loosens—you can eat it if it doesn’t offend your conscience—and binds—one should not eat it if it becomes a stumbling block or offense to others.

Does Paul halakha contradict Jacob’s? Not really. Since Paul was in Jerusalem, he understood that Jacob’s intent was to permit common meals for Gentiles together with Jews who would take exception to eating meat offered to idols. On the other hand, Paul’s halakha introduces the idea that some matters can be left to freedom of conscience or personal conviction—so long as “this freedom [or right] of yours does not become a stumbling block” to your brothers in the community.

Freedom of conscience is a biblical principle, but “you shall love your neighbor” is a greater principle. V’eemru? Community depends on emphasizing this priority in our halakha.

Today’s Torah portion makes a similar point in Deuteronomy 12:7-8, “There you and your households will eat before Adonai your God and rejoice in every undertaking of your hand, as Adonai your God has blessed you. You will not do all the things as we are doing here today—everyone doing what is right in his own eyes.”

Sometimes people have honest differences of opinions. We can respect each other’s opinions, and sometimes our freedom of conscience should be the higher priority. On the other hand, sometimes, instead of “everyone doing what is right in his own eyes,” sometimes we should defer to the halakha of the community, for the sake of unity. V’eemru?

When the first and then the second Temples were destroyed, and most Jews were exiled from the land, what preserved the scattered communities of Bnei-Yisrael? God’s covenants, and halakha.

As the tide of the surrounding culture becomes increasingly anti-Semitic and anti-Messiah, what will preserve the scattered communities of Messianic believers?

BTW, for a Messianic Halakha under development: see TikkunAmerica.org, then under the Resources tab, look for Mitzvah Book—thanks to Michael Rudolph and Dan Juster.

Today’s Torah portion introduces several mitzvot, for which our community has practical halakha, which we’ll discuss in our breakout discussion….

This sermon may not to be reprinted in whole or in part without the express written consent of Messianic Rabbi Glenn D. Blank of Beit Simcha. Your generous support  for our ministry and building project is appreciated!

Questions for Breakout Discussion (and Study)

What is halakha? Why is halakha more than a legal code?

Why are there different halakha for different communities? For example?

How does Yeshua give His disciples authority to make halakha for the Messianic community? Why?

What halachic ruling did Jacob and the Jerusalem elders made in Acts 15:19-20? Why is this halachic ruling important for the modern Messianic Jewish movement?

According to Paul, when is loving your brother a higher priority than freedom of conscience? Why?

Can there be a situation in which freedom of conscience a higher priority than loving your brother?

What is the danger of freedom degenerating into “everyone doing what is right in his own eyes”?

Deuteronomy 12:5-6 says that “you are to seek only the place God chooses” for worship, and bring all your tithes and offerings there.” In ancient times, that was Shiloh, where the Tabernacle was set up, and later Jerusalem, where the Temple was built. Where should we gather and bring our tithes and offerings today? Are you convinced? Why?

Deuteronomy 12:7 says that the people may eat the meat of the offerings (in the right place) and Deuteronomy 14:27 says that the tithe is also for “the Levite within your gates.” How should our tithes be used in our community today?

Deuteronomy 14 lays out the laws of biblical kashrut, specifying what God’s “treasured people” may eat and what they may not eat (e.g., no pork, no shellfish, also no camels and no buzzards).  Should Gentiles consume these things? (See Deuteronomy 14:21b.)  What about our oneg? What about our own kitchens?

Deuteronomy 14:21 concludes, “You are not to boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.”  Should our community separate milk and meat as Orthodox Jews do? See Genesis 18:8. “Then [Abraham] took butter and milk and the young ox that he had prepared and set it before [God and the two angels]. While he was standing by them under the tree, they ate.

Deuteronomy 16 gives mitzvot considering three harvest festivals. First is Passover, during which “you are not to eat hametz.” What counts as hametz for our community? (Ashkenazi halakha forbids eating rice, corn or legumes, but Sephardic halakha permits them.)

After Sukkot, Leviticus 23:36 adds an eight day assembly, or Shemini Atzeret: “On the eighth day you shall have a holy convocation.” Should our community observe Shemini Atzeret? (This question came up at our most recent elders’ meeting, since our Shemini Atzeret observance has been sparsely attended…. Hmmm…. Is it halakha for our community, or isn’t it?)


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