Messianic Judaism vs. Rabbinic Judaism

The Difference Between Messianic Judaism and Rabbinic Judaism

Rabbi Carol Calise

There are several foundational issues that define the difference between Messianic Judaism and Rabbinic Judaism. These issues have nothing to do with the structures of our services or our observance of holidays, Jewish customs, etc. But it is these foundational differences that affect each of our understanding and acceptance or non-acceptance of Yeshua as Messiah.

1. Rabbinic Judaism believes Oral law/tradition is authority.

You cannot have Rabbinic Judaism without an oral law or tradition. We agree that the legal and convenantal material was revealed by God and put in writing. This is known as Torah she-bik-tav. Rabbinic Judaism feels that in addition to Moses receiving the Written Torah, he also received a commentary and explanation on the Written Torah. This is known as Oral Torah, Torah she-be-al pey. Moses Maimonides, in his Introduction to Mishnah Commentary said, “Every commandment. which the Holy One, blessed be He, gave to Moses our teacher, was given with its clarification. First, he told him the commandment. (Written Torah) and then expounded on its explanation and content including all that which is included in the Torah.” The Pirke Avot opens with the statement. “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to…..” The commentary defines Torah in the following way: The term Torah includes the Written Torah (Torah she-bik-tav, i.e., the Five Books of Moses) and the accompanying Oral Law (Torah she-be-al pey) — the interpretation of the Text as divinely handed down to Moses in its entirety and expounded by successive generations of sages.” (8) They feel God gave the Torah to Moses in two forms on Mt. Sinai, the one was written and the other was formulated and transmitted orally. Jacob Neusner in his book, Scriptures of the Oral Torah, states “the Oral Torah, Torah she-be-al peh, Torah that is memorized — is that half of the one whole Torah revealed by God to Moses at Mt. Sinai that came down from then to late antiquity, formulated and transmitted in memory alone. The Oral Torah serves to complement and complete the written one and vice versa.” (1-2) So, how does this work. God gave Moses a command, i.e., Honor your Father and Mother, then God explained in detail what that meant. This explanation was memorized by Moses and transmitted to Joshua who transmitted it to the elders, etc.

This Oral Torah now exists in a written form. We first hear of it with the Tanaim, the great scholars from 200 BCE – 200 CE. Their main job was to teach and transmit these traditions. Thus, as Neusner put it “What God told Moses we hear for the first time in a variety of accents and modes of expression, in the name not of God speaking to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai but of Yochanan ben Zakkai or Akiba or Judah the Patriarch, all of whom lived in the Land of Israel nearly 1,000 years after Moses, and the message comes in categories and circumstances deriving not from Israel in the wilderness but Jewry in what Israel called the Land of Israel but what the world knew as a Roman province…” (2-3) By the year 200 CE this oral law which had been transmitted through memory was now put in writing. The first piece of writing is called the Mishnah. Its name comes from a Hebrew root meaning to teach by repetition. It was the first of several Rabbinic documents written between the 2nd – 7th centuries CE that contained the Oral Law. The Mishnah has six sedarim (divisions) each containing subdivisions known as tractates.

The next piece of Rabbinic literature is called the Tosefta. It means addition or supplement. It is a supplement to the Mishnah and follows its same general order. It was compiled sometime between 200 CE – 400 CE.

Pirke Avot, which has already been quoted, was written around 250 CE. It is a book full of ethical and moral exhortations. It preserves a chain of tradition which tells us that the names of the authorities of the Mishnah are included as part of the Sinai tradition. It treats the Mishnah as part of the revelation at Mt. Sinai.

The Gemara is another piece of literature. It is combined with the Mishnah to form the Talmud. From 200-400 CE the sages tried to understand the Tanaim and their writings contained in the Mishnah. They did not invent any new teachings but expounded on those of the Tanaim. Their studies were put together into the two Talmuds, the Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud.

All of these pieces of rabbinical literature represent in a written form the oral law that was given to Moses at Mt. Sinai. In fact, the written law cannot be understood without the oral law. In the book, Student’s Guide through the Talmud it says “allegiance to the authority of said Rabbinic tradition is binding upon all sons of Israel since these explanations and interpretations have come down to us by word of mouth from generation to generation right from the time of Moses. They have been transmitted to us precise, correct and unadulterated. And He who does not give adherence to the unwritten law and Rabbinic tradition has no right to share the heritage of Israel.” (p.4) They really believe they are living according to things that were given to Moses at Mt. Sinai. The Jerusalem Talmud tells us (Pe’ah) that anything a scholar might learn in the future was already said to Moses on Mt. Sinai.

As Messianic Jews, we do not agree with this foundational principle of Rabbinic Judaism. To us the written Word is authoritative, not Oral Torah. We don?t accept it as binding. In fact, we do not believe that it was given to Moses at Mt. Sinai. This does not mean there are not some good things we can glean from these writings, but they cannot and should not carry the same weight as the written Word and certainly are not a source of spiritual enlightenment and guidance. What do we base this on? Several scriptures tell us that Moses wrote down what God spoke to him. Deuteronomy 31.9 “So Moses wrote down this law.” Deuteronomy 31.24 “After Moses finished writing in a book the words of this law from beginning to end.” In other words, he wrote it all down. Other Scriptures tell us not to add to what has been written (see Deuteronomy 4.2 and Revelation 22.18). Also, there is never any mention or allusion to an oral law. In fact, God is always giving us instruction to be careful to observe the things written in the book of the Law. (See Joshua 1.7,8 and Joshua 23.6). Furthermore, when King Josiah finds the written Torah (2 Chronicles 34) it is something that the people had no knowledge of. It had been lost to them. If you were to believe in the transmitting of the oral law, then it would have had to have been transmitted to the sages of Josiah’s day. If they knew of the oral law, they would have had to have known of the written law because according to Rabbinic Judaism the one is incomplete without the other. The oral law expounds the written law. Again, this would mean Josiah and his people would have had to have recognized this written law as what had been transmitted orally. Again, there is no proof that oral law was given at Sinai. Even Jewish scholars state, as quoted earlier, that we do not hear of this oral law until the time of Yochanan ben Zakkai, Akiba, Judah, etc., hundreds of years after Moses. This difference affects the understanding and acceptance of Yeshua as Messiah on the part of Rabbinic Judaism. They cannot look at the written word on its own but must and will always refer to the oral law as well.

2. The rabbi is authority

Rabbinic Judaism also believes that the only way written Torah can be preserved is through the oral law. This oral law was preserved through the rabbis. It is said that the inspiration of the prophets was given to the sages and rabbis. You must believe the rabbis even if what they say is opposite to what you clearly see with your own eyes. Talmudic rabbis were free to reinterpret and reconstruct reality and institutions by complete and meticulous study. (Invitation to Talmud, 284) They were considered masters of divine revelation who had “unique access to part of it,” i.e. , the oral Torah. Also what the rabbis did was revelatory since they were models or examples to be followed if one wanted to fulfill God’s will. (Ibid., 281-82) The Talmud also tells us the sages have authority to uproot biblical law if there is a valid reason for it. (Not in Heaven, p. 57) Their rulings were meant to protect the Torah and were therefore given the same weight as the Torah. The Mishnah says, “An infringement upon the enactments of the scribes is weightier than that of the words of the Torah (Sanhedrin 11.3).” (Jewish Encyclopedia, “Authority”) It is not enough to have the Torah. Leadership is needed for interpretation and to make authoritative decisions. That leadership was the Sanhedrin, sages and rabbis.

A story in the Talmud illustrates the authority of the rabbis over the scriptures and even over God Himself. The story is called Aknai’s oven and deals with issues of ritual purity. Rabbi Eliezer stood in opposition to the majority in his ruling on this matter. Context tells us that he really surpassed them yet his ruling was not accepted. So he calls for several miracles to take place to confirm his viewpoint as being correct. The miracles occur but still the voice of the majority is accepted over his. He calls for confirmation from God. A voice from heaven speaks declaring Rabbi Eliezer to be correct. The rabbis “response to the voice” “It is not in heaven.” The Talmud interprets this response in this way: “The Torah has already been given to us on Sinai. We are not to listen to a heavenly voice (i.e. on matters of halakhic decision). Thou hast already written for us at Sinai to make decisions in accordance with the majority.” Later Rabbi Nathan encountered Elijah and asked him what was God’s reaction to this discussion. “God was laughing and said, My sons have defeated me, my sons have defeated me. (B. Talmud, Baba M?Zia 59b)? (Berkovits, 47-48) This story shows two things: 1) that humans share in the responsibility and interpretation of Torah. “God Himself, in the act of revelation, handed the deciding authority to man.” (Ibid., 2) It is clear that Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion was correct. He had absolute truth. But the principle evolves that it was more important in practical matters to follow the view of the majority instead of the absolute truth. (Ibid.) The rabbis are considered to receive continuous revelation. Rabbi Yosef Albo says, “The Torah could not be complete in such a manner that it should be adequate for all times. New details are continually occurring in the affairs of men in customs and actions, too many to be included in a book. Therefore, God revealed to Moses orally some general principles, only briefly alluded to [i.e. in the Written Torah], so that with their help, the sages in each generation may deduce the new particulars.” (Berkovits, 71) Today’s rabbis are ordained within the different branches of Judaism. Each branch offers guidance and has definite sets of halakhic principles but these “do not supersede the individual Rabbinic authority or autonomy.” (Siegel, 261)

As Messianic Jews, we do believe in spiritual leadership and their authority and that God uses that leadership to expound His Word to the people. But we cannot or do not accept that any rabbi or minister is more authoritative than Scriptures or God Himself. Even the Jews of Berea in Acts 17 examined the Scriptures, i.e. the written Word, daily to see if what Paul taught was true. The authority was not in Paul?s words. His teaching had to be supported by written Scriptures. Matthew 15. 7-9 Yeshua says of the leaders “their teachings are but rules taught by man.” He is telling us that there is no authority to their teachings and rulings. We also recognize the limitations of man. Man is not infinite, omniscient, omnipotent or omnipresent. Several Scriptures show us this. Matthew 5.3 tells us that we cannot even make one hair white or black. Matthew 6.2 tells us man cannot add a single hour to his life. If man is limited as portrayed in the Scriptures, than the rabbis cannot be an ultimate authority above and beyond God. Because Rabbinical Judaism accepts the rabbis as an ultimate authority there is no acceptance of Yeshua as Messiah. Many Rabbinic Jews will ask, “What rabbi has ever accepted?” Why, because the rabbi is authority. Even less observant Jews are still influenced by this principle. They comment that on approaching their rabbis about Yeshua or Isaiah 53 they are told that it refers to Israel and not the Messiah. The rabbi’s word is accepted over and beyond the written word because his word and ruling is authoritative and binding.

3. The center of their religious faith is Study.

The exaltation of the study of the Torah/Talmud is to the point that it has taken the place of God. In fact, how much authority a rabbi may have in his own synagogue is really dependent upon his scholarship. They are constantly lifting up the intellect. The Talmud has the place in their lives that Messiah has in ours. They hunger for study in the way we hunger for God. Their studies are for the sake of study itself. They are forever learning but never come to the knowledge of truth. Their studies involve endless pursuits of arguments and debates. Not for the sake of coming to truth but for the sake of study itself. Some quotes from Pirke Avot show us this centrality: “Let your house be a meeting place for sages; sit in the dust of their feet; and drink in their words thirstily.” (1.4) “He who does not increase [his Torah learning] decreases it, he who refuses to teach [Torah] deserves death; and he who exploits the crown of Torah shall fade away.” (1.13) “If you have studied much Torah do not take credit for yourself, because that is what you were created to do.”(2.9) “But if three have eaten at the same table and have spoken words of Torah there, it is as if they have eaten from the table of the Omnipresent.” (3.4) The entire sixth chapter is devoted to praise of study. It begins with “Whoever engaged in Torah study for its own sake merits many things.” V.1, V.2, V.6, end. It shows he loves God, he’s clothed with humility, is moved away from sin, etc. The ideal goal is to study, not to know G-d !!

As Messianic Jews we agree that study of God’s word is important. 2 Timothy 2.15 tells us to study to show ourselves approved. However, John 5.39 and 40 clearly show us that to study Scriptures for their own sake is not where it is at. “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” Why don’t Rabbinic Jews see Yeshua in their study of the Scriptures? Because they are studying not to gain revelation or knowledge but for the sake of study itself. Our study of Scriptures is that we might come to know God in a better and fuller way.

4. Rabbinic Judaism receives their guidance for life from halakah.

What is halakah? Many say it comes from the Hebrew word halach which means to walk. Thus, it is the way one walks out or conducts his life. That is certainly the connotation to the word today. Professor Baruch Levine of NYU says it more likely that it comes from an Akkadian word, ilku which had to do with something imposed i.e. a land tax or feudal obligation. Thus, the word would imply a legal or religious duty to do an obligation. Berkovits says it is “the wisdom of the application of the written Torah to the life and history of the Jewish people.” (71) Halakah is a “guide post to observing the forms and norms of the tradition.” (Siegal, 2) It is something that evolved over time, it was not a fixed legal system. (Ibid.) It is “to interpret the intentions of the Torah for all the areas of Jewish existence, the Spiritual, the ethical, the economic…” (Berk. 3) It deals with the law and lists for us legal traditions on how to obey God. It usually contains explanations or debates on principles found in the Bible.

As Messianic Jews we seek our guidance in the Written Word of God. We cannot obey halakah that stands in opposition to the written Word of G-d. Moreover, we have the Ruach haKodesh to guide us. Yeshua tells us in John 16.13 that the Holy Spirit is given to guide us into all truth. It was not the halakah that guided us to the truth of Yeshua as Messiah, but it was the Spirit of God. When we need direction for our lives, it is not to the halakah that we go but we go to the Word of God and seek the Holy Spirit for guidance.

Today the Jews who operate according to these Rabbinic principles are really the Orthodox, Chasidic and Lubavitch. Yet, all Jews are influenced by these principles to some degree. But realize that the average Jewish person you meet on the street certainly does not have full knowledge of these things nor do they consciously operate according to these principles. Yet, it is true that Rabbinic Judaism has helped to preserve the Jewish people. It has handed down to us many customs and traditions that identify us as Jews. In this way it has influenced all Jewish lives. While we owe in part our preservation as a distinct people group to Rabbinic Judaism, we as Messianic Jews must be careful not to compromise truth of God’s Word by allowing ourselves to be directed by the same principles as Rabbinic Judaism. Our ultimate authority is not the oral law or the rabbis. It is the written Word and God Himself. Central to our belief is Messiah Jesus, not the Torah/Talmud or its study. Our guidance does not come from halakah but from the Word and from the Spirit of God. We must also understand that these foundational differences is what marks the distinction between our understanding and acceptance of Yeshua as Messiah and their understanding and non-acceptance of Yeshua as Messiah.

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