An Open Letter To My Christian Friends

I am aware that many of you are unacquainted with our customs. Over the years, I have had privilege of knowing and befriending many very kind Christians who were genuinely interested in learning about and who were seeking to understand Jewish practices and traditions. They have been gracious and a blessing for which I am thankful. This letter is not written with them in mind.

Unfortunately, I have also had the unhappy experience of hearing criticism and comments about our practices from other types of Christians who weren’t seeking to understand, but were more interested in correcting us so we would become more like them. It is to them this letter is dedicated.

Why do you feel you have the right to criticize what you don’t understand? Is it because you read about Jewish people in the Bible, and criticize their actions that you think you can do the same with Jewish practices today? From my perspective, it’s problematic that you think you have the right to criticize Jewish people in the Bible. You were not in their situation, and frankly, the purpose of the writings is not to disparage them, but to teach you. I wonder if you learn from what you read or just criticize the people so you can feel superior to them like an arm chair quarterback. If you don’t understand what we do, ask us. Don’t jump to conclusions and criticize what you don’t understand.

In the case of Jewish people today, it is inappropriate for anyone outside the Jewish community to criticize our traditions. It’s like a guest coming into your living room and criticizing the décor and trying to rearrange the furniture. We don’t come into churches and tell you what we think you are doing wrong. Accord us the same consideration. Rudeness is not acceptable when cloaked under the guise of theology. Mutual respect for the traditions of others is more reflective of spiritual maturity.
When I have discussions about Scripture with you, your presuppositions regarding the texts you quote are usually basic Evangelical concepts regarding Rabbis, Pharisees and Law, versus Yeshua and Grace. I believe those presuppositions to be wrong because they are based on what I believe to be a faulty theological grid, and therefore, your understanding of those texts is skewed. The reasons for my belief are as follows:

In the first place, Yeshua was completely Torah observant. If he was not, he could NEVER have been the Messiah, and any discussion of his being the Messiah of Israel would be moot. If he did not fully obey the Law, he was not without sin. He could not provide atonement for sin if he had sin of his own. Rabbinic traditions in the first century were not codified at that time, and their permutations were not set in stone. Yeshua letting his disciples rub grains of wheat on Shabbat did not constitute a violation of the Torah, only a violation of one interpretation of the Torah. When the tradition in question was codified, what the disciples did and Yeshua allowed was permitted by the rabbis. To build a theology of Yeshua not fully embracing the Torah around that instance is irresponsible theologically. Everything Yeshua taught about the Torah was supportive of it. Yeshua said in Matthew 5:17-19 “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches [them], he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” The word for fulfill can mean to complete, which is the meaning most Christian interpreters choose, because it fits their theology. The word plereo can equally be understood to mean to fill out to its fullest meaning. For those who would like to believe God’s law is done away with, this is not the plain meaning of the text, but something that supports rather than informs their theology, so they choose the former meaning. For those who understand the Messiah bringing the Torah to its fullest meaning, something one would expect a Messiah to do, without having the de facto effect of ending it, the latter meaning seems correct.

For us, the Torah has not been done away with, but is Holy Scripture that speaks to us today, guiding us toward the life Yeshua lived. This was Paul’s meaning when he wrote: “For Messiah is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” The word “end,” telos, can be translated end as in finished or terminated, or it can just as well be translated goal. If your theology is such that the Messiah came to end the Law of God, you go with the first meaning to support what you already believe. If you understand that the Messiah’s life is the goal at which the Torah points, then it also makes sense that the Torah is the schoolmaster that leads us to a more Messiah-like life. For us, “Messiah is the goal of the Torah for righteousness to everyone who believes.” New Testament translators interpret in light of their theological proclivities. Their choices are not necessarily inspired.
In the second place, you interpret the scriptures with the Law vs. Grace Dichotomy, i.e., Faith in Yeshua is the basis for salvation by grace, while Judaism, Rabbis, and Torah constitute in your view, salvation by works, or works righteousness. The main problem with this view is that it is not Judaism in any form at any time. Judaism does not now nor has it ever believed in works righteousness. It has always been and continues to be a religion of grace, based on the mercy of God toward his children. The purpose of Torah observance according to Judaism is to live a godly life reflecting the values of our God, not to gain entrance into heaven. A basic reading of the Jewish prayers in any Jewish prayer book would show this to be true, and as you know; the prayers of a people reflect their deepest held values. Judaism is a living religion that continues to worship the God of Israel, who is called in the New Testament, the God and Father of the Lord Yeshua the Messiah.” Jewish faith is real, and it is faith in the One true God. It cannot be dismissed as a second hand religion, or as God’s stepchild.
As you read Galatians, Acts, and other so called “anti-Law” passages of the New Testament, considering the above, it becomes clear that whatever Paul was addressing, it was not Judaism. The Jerusalem Council’s of Acts 15 and Acts 21 were addressing the question of how do pagan gentiles come to the Messiah of Israel. In that time period, a gentile coming to the God of Israel did so through conversion (referred to as circumcision and keeping the commandments). The apostolic discussion was concerned with gentiles coming to the Messiah of Israel without the need for conversion to Judaism. It makes Peter’s argument even more poignant, that Cornelius and his family received the immersion of the Holy Spirit without conversion, so they need not require it of gentiles to come to Yeshua. His statement that “this is a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear,” was not referring to the Torah as the yoke, but conversion, because God said the Torah is a blessing, and something we can do, and has never seemed to be a burden to Jews. The yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear is the yoke of being Jewish. When you are Jewish, you may endure severe persecution. Look at the last 2000 years of Jewish history for proof of this. According to Jewish tradition, when a gentile seeks to convert, he must be deterred three times, because it is not easy to be a Jew. Even in the first century, under the Greeks and Romans, Jewish life was a struggle. Peter was saying they need not convert to Judaism to embrace Yeshua, and therefore become Jews in order to embrace the Jewish Messiah.

This becomes especially important when seeking to understand Galatians. The Galatians lived in a Roman province where Judaism was a legal religion, but Christianity was not. Jews were exempted from sacrificing to the emperor, while others were obligated to do so. In the first century, many Gentile Christians were worshiping in synagogues because Christianity was still considered to be a sect of Judaism. It stands to reason that Gentile Christians wanted the same exemption from emperor worship as the Jews, among whom they worshipped. The Jewish community would normally say to any gentile coming to them that if they wanted a Jewish privilege, they would need to fully come into their community by the normal way of entrance; i.e., conversion, which would require circumcision and Torah observance. I believe Paul was arguing against those gentiles who chose to convert, thinking they were holier because they converted and therefore didn’t have to sacrifice to the emperor. They thought they had gone further and were therefore more legitimate and acceptable than their fellow gentiles, instead of considering themselves fully legitimate in Yeshua.

Jewish people don’t walk around feeling superior because we are circumcised. It’s just not a Jewish thing to do. I have seen gentiles who adapt Jewish customs act that way toward their fellow gentiles, but Jews don’t do it. It makes more sense for Paul to be addressing gentiles who were selling out for the sake of legitimacy in a Roman world rather than suffering for being a believer. It also makes more sense that Paul would not be addressing Jews keeping the Torah but instead addressing gentiles seeking to justify themselves in one way or another. Paul would have understood the Torah to be a unique covenant with the Jewish people, of whom he went at length to stress that he was currently a part, and did in fact, according to Acts, follow himself. It is far easier to believe Paul honestly went to the temple to show that he fully observed the Law, then to believe that he, as a faithful apostle of Yeshua was intentionally making a false show of ritual adherence that he himself did not support.
I accept the concept of a bilateral ecclesiology. In other words, Jews and Gentiles are not the same even though both follow Yeshua. While Paul says there is “neither Jew nor Greek, Man or Woman, Slave nor Free,” it is foolish to take that concept in an absolute sense. If it were absolute, no one should have a problem with gay marriage. Men and women are surely not the same, but they are loved the same by God. So it is with Jews and gentiles, slaves and free people. Everyone is not the same in Scripture. There were different laws for the King than for others, different law for the Priests, and different laws for men and women. Each had his own responsibilities based on those laws. Scripture does not say we are to be uniform. Jews are obligated to the Torah, but with some exceptions, it is optional for non-Jews. As I said earlier, this obligation is not a soteriological obligation in that soteriology was not the intent of Torah, although it records it. It is a lifestyle obligation. Gentiles may observe Torah, but since it is a covenant between God and the descendants of Jacob, it is more than optional for us. It may be seen as having changed in Jeremiah, but its change is not in content only that it is written on our hearts.

I understand the grafting in of the Gentiles to be similar in concept to the British Commonwealth. All members of the commonwealth have the British monarchy as their queen or king, but not all are British. Canadians and Australians understand this very well. In the same way, Gentiles in Yeshua are grafted in to the Israel commonwealth. Yeshua is the King of Israel, and the Gentile peoples have Yeshua as their sovereign, but they are not Jews, spiritual or otherwise. The fact that Yeshua returns to a regathered Israel and is to reign over the world from Jerusalem is witness to this continuing truth.
I do not accept the notion that the church is a “new Israel.” That is no more than theological identity theft. When Abraham spoke with God about his descendants in Genesis 15, he was not concerned with “spiritual” seed, but with physical seed, and that is what God gave him, birthing the Jewish people in a miraculous way. The Jewish people are the physical presence of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob on the earth. Paul wrote in Romans 9:3-5 “For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Messiah for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Messiah came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen. “From Paul’s perspective, they have not been replaced by anyone.

The Christian tradition tends to separate the physical from the spiritual, an idea that was borrowed from Greek philosophy, but our tradition views man in a more holistic way, holding that you cannot totally separate the physical part of man from the spiritual. What affects us physically has an impact on the spiritual part of us as well. This is the reason our tradition forbids desecrating the body after death. It’s a reminder of this belief and of the hope of resurrection. We believe His promises remain for his physical seed. While yes, Yeshua is that seed, Yeshua is not cut off from his people. Without the Jewish people, there is no Yeshua, and without Yeshua, there is no Israel. His sufferings continue to be filled up in the Jewish experience over the last 2000 years. Israel and Yeshua are inseparable. Just as the patriarch Joseph did not disown his brothers, but received them, blessed them, and took care of them, so it is in the relationship between Yeshua and Israel. The covenants made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and to Israel through Moses have never been abrogated. God’s promises to Israel are eternal. In Jeremiah 31:36-37 it says “If those ordinances [ i.e. the sun, moon and stars] depart From before Me, says the LORD, [Then] the seed of Israel shall also cease From being a nation before Me forever.” Thus says the LORD: “If heaven above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, I will also cast off all the seed of Israel For all that they have done, says the LORD.” In other words, God’s love for Israel is not based on Torah performance, not on works, but on God’s promise. We call this grace. You do as well.

The reason we seem to be talking past one another is an inverse view of our values. Christian values focus on Beliefs, then Belonging, and finally Behavior. You first want to make sure you believe the same things and go down a checklist of beliefs, then you look at where a person belongs, i.e., what church they attend. Behavior is not heavily stressed, because it is not as important to you as Beliefs and Belonging. You don’t stress behavior as much because you consider yourselves “forgiven.

For Jewish people, our values system is reversed. Behavior is what we look at first. We don’t talk that much about belief, because talk is cheap. How a person lives, expresses their values and treats other people is what matters most to us. Belonging is also important to us. Where we relate, and with whom we associate also matters to us. Belief matters as well, but we don’t throw our beliefs in everyone’s faces. They are deeply held convictions we share only when we know someone well.

The problem in our communication is that you want to talk about your beliefs as soon as we meet, and we don’t know you well enough to have that kind of conversation. We want to see your behavior. We want to know what kind of person you are. What effect your beliefs have on your actions. If you are kind and ethical, we have something upon which to build a friendship. If you only want to share your beliefs and challenge ours, you are invading our privacy and showing disrespect for our beliefs. I don’t believe that is your intent, but it is the result of your actions. If you want our friendship, learn to communicate with us. Respect our values. We don’t talk so much about faith, but we express our faith in giving to charity, helping others, and acts of kindness. To us, that is doing Torah.

The synagogue I used to belong to had holocaust survivors as members. When I would go to morning prayers, they were there. They didn’t always pay attention to the Torah reading, but instead would be chattering quietly in the back of the synagogue. On first glance, it would seem disrespectful of the Torah, and even faithless. Yet when you stop to consider that they were teens when they were in the concentration camps, when their parents and siblings were killed before their eyes, you have to wonder what kind of effect that would have on a person. Even the seemingly strongest believer might lose his faith over something like that. Yet these elderly men came every morning at 6:30 and prayed, blessing God’s Name. I have to say, they had more faith than anyone I know. Their coming and blessing God’s Name in spite of what they went through and lost is in itself a deep expression of faith. It cost them something that mere words cannot approach.

The bottom line is, take the time to know and understand us. Whether or not we accept your beliefs is not the issue. If you make us your friends, you have gained a friend. In this world, that’s a good thing to have. When we try to respect one another, is not God pleased with that?

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12 thoughts on “An Open Letter To My Christian Friends

  1. Hello Dr. Schiffman,

    Welcome to the blogging world! We need more Messianic voices like yours in the blogosphere. I will point some of my readers to your blog tomorrow.

    Messiah’s peace.
    -Judah

  2. Dr. Schiffman,
    I think you posted this somewhere else a few months ago…it hit home in so many ways.
    I look forward to reading more of your thoughts here.

    • You are right Jonathan, I posted this on facebook a few months ago. I was starting this blog and needed to put something worthwhile on it, so I figured reposting this was a good place to start. Thanks for reading.

  3. Dr. Schiffman,

    Can you please outline a specific list of Torah commandments that Gentiles are prohibited from following, and back it up with scriptures?

    I am sure that just as you stated that there are separate laws for men and women, we can also find a list of separate laws for Jews and Gentiles?

  4. If you are trying to make a point, I suggest you make it, rather than ask me to compile lists of commandments.

    Half the problem with coming to the right answer is asking the right question. I think your question has problems. You ask about which commandments are “prohibited” to gentiles. Since the Torah was not addressed to gentiles it really doesn’t address them. If gentiles wish to be blessed by the God of Israel, they need to bless the Jewish people, so in a sense, if you want to push it, gentiles are prohibited from cursing Israel.

    There are no separate laws for Jews and Gentiles because the Torah is a unique covenant between God and the Jewish people. Gentiles aren’t really addressed. If gentiles wish to embrace the Torah, they can do so. Its called conversion. Why conversion? Since the Torah is a covenant between God and Israel, if they embrace the Torah, but not Israel, they are missing the point.

    In the Besorah, it says in Acts 15 and 21, that gentiles may embrace the Messiah of Israel without converting to Judaism (circumcision and following Torah). If they wish to follow Torah, they are permitted. Thats hardly a command to do so.

    • The Mixed multitude you are referring to, at best were converts, and at worst were the people who grumbled and wanted to return to Egypt, as some rabbiinic comentators suggest. If they were converts, they were counted as Bnei Yisrael. They left Egypt, their home, and followed the God of Israel, and became part of the people of Israel. If they were the grumblers ….. they were cut off from the people.

  5. What ritual of conversion are you speaking of? Since the ritual of a proselyte is a much later rabbinic invention? The “gramblers,” as you say, were only the multitudes or they also included some of the native-born? And if so, were the native-born who did some gramblig striped of their covenant membership?

  6. Drschiffman,

    I have thought quite a bit about our unfortunate exchange here on your blog. I let my emotions get the best of me and wrote inappropriate and unnecessary comments.

    I am sorry.

    Please forgive me if I angered you or hurt your feelings in any way.

    Shalom

    Russ

  7. Pingback: 2010 in review « Drschiffman's Blog

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