Place of Torah in the Messianic Jewish Movement

A simplistic approach to the application of the Torah in the New Covenant is one of the great weaknesses in some parts of the Messianic Jewish world. On the one side are some to claim to be Torah observant. Yet, they do not qualify what this means. For some, the number of Torah commands that can not be observed, either because we have no Temple, or because some of the forms of the commands are geared to the culture of an ancient agricultural world that no longer fits either our economic organization in the modern world or our need for modern methods of agricultural production means that Torah loyalty is impossible. In addition, penalties for crimes in the Torah seem unnecessarily hard. The Puritans in America did apply the penalties for crime in a literal way.

Here are some thoughts that can be helpful. II Timothy 3:16,17 says that all Scripture is God breathed and is profitable for training in righteousness. Classic Protestant Theology saw the Law as applicable for the discernment of God’s universal moral standards and for the application of Civil law in all societies.

Walter Kaiser the emeritus President of Gordon Conwell shows the applicability of the Law in this book Toward an Old Testament Ethic. Kaiser speaks of a principal approach to the application of the Torah. This means, of course, that the nine of the Ten Commandments are directly applicable but intensified in regard to the issues of the heart (Matthew 5-7). But much more is applicable. For example, the laws for crimes against property show the importance of both restitution and some punitive penalty so that more is required to be given to the one who experienced theft. It shows a restoration process in community. This is an important lesson.

Capital crimes are another area of importance. These require the death penalty. Yet, most believe that aside form murder and rape, that penalties for some crimes are overly harsh. For example, stoning rebellious child is usually seen as over the top. This may have more to do with modern sensibilities. The rebellious child is not just one who says no to a father’s command. Rather he is the incorrigible one that would have been given up to the state by his parents as beyond their ability. And it would not be speaking of a younger child, but perhaps a teen. We have no example in Biblical history of this being done. What is important is that we understand by the capital crimes and punishment in how seriously God sees a variety of crimes. Most who have sought to apply the Law in the Protestant tradition, have defined crime and its seriousness by the Law, but have thought that with the coming of Yeshua and the power of the New Covenant, that penalties for some of these should be moderated. The famous Archbishop of the Anglican Church in the 17 century, Richard Hooker, made this case against the severity of the Puritan harshness. In addition, the Body of the Messiah enforces laws against heresy by disfellowshipping. But a modern state is not called to punish people for heresy though this was done in ancient Israel and in Catholic history. The New Covenant vastly changes our orientation to using civil law for enforcing doctrine.

The requirement of testimony and witnesses for criminal proceedings, the rejection of trial by ordeal, the importance of the ruler being subject to law, came into Western legal tradition from the Torah. In addition, the West has embraced the laws of forbidden relations for marriage was embraced by western societies. Even the laws of agriculture have application. Forgiving debt in the Sabbatical year and Jubilee year tells us about the importance of a way out for those who would be destroyed by debt (the origin of bankruptcy laws). In addition the Jubilee year is a key for understanding the need for liberation and that economies should be organized in ways that do not concentrate all wealth in the hands of a few who keep that wealth inter-generationally. So with a principled approach asking the question of the why of the Torah commands, we can readily discern why something is important to God and it can lead to both personal through the Holy Spirit and civil directions to guide magistrates and legislatures.

In addition, since the New Covenant affirms the continued covenant of God with Israel, Jewish believers maintain the marks of Jewish identity rooted in Torah. It is the Torah that provides us with the promise of forever being a distinct people and provides markers of Jewish identity both in the promises (the promised land) and a cultural pattern of life connected to seedtime and harvest, the memory of what God has done in our history and our prophetic future. The Sabbath and Feast are full of continued meaning and application and now are embraced as part of the calendar of Israel. Circumcision still remains as the covenant sign of maintaining the continuity of Jewish peoplehood. So we have a language, land and culture rooted in Torah. As Louis Goldberg of Moody Bible Institute argued some 40 years ago, the Torah provides us with the locus of promise and practice that is the locus of Jewish identity.

So while I believe we are in the New Covenant order, I would assert that only Messianic Jews and Christians (who apply universal law) can be rightly Torah observant in the way that God desires (II Tim. 3:16,17, Romans 3:31, 10:4). Orthodox Jews practice Torah in a way that is many times not according to the heart of God revealed in the New Covenant. Sadly, some who claim to be Torah observant in the Messianic Jewish world project an Orthodox Jewish way that mostly gives the wrong impression. (I don’t object to an Orthodox Jewish life for one called to evangelize that community and live in such neighborhoods.) Loyalty to the Torah in the New Covenant is something very different. My book Jewish Roots provides a very full explanation of these themes as well as a chart and key for applying the Torah in the New Covenant.

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Dr. Daniel Juster, founder and director of Tikkun International, has been involved in the Messianic Jewish movement since 1972 and currently resides in Jerusalem, Israel, from where he serves and supports the Messianic movement worldwide. Dan was the founding president and general secretary of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations for 9 years, the senior pastor of Beth Messiah congregation for 22 years, and a co-founder of the Messiah Bible Institute in several nations. Dr. Juster serves on the board of Towards Jerusalem Council II, provides oversight to 15 congregations in the USA as well as overseeing emissaries in Israel and the Former Soviet Union. Daniel has authored about 20 books on topics ranging from theology, Israel and the Jewish people, eschatology, discipleship, and leadership.