Wednesday, February 20, 2013

2 Stages of Conversion and 2 Reasons for the Mitzvot: Applying the Jewish Concepts of Ta'amei ha-Mitzvot and Teshuvah Gemurah to the Jerusalem Council Decision of Acts 15


According to Rambam, there are two reasons for the mitzvot (ta'amei ha'mitzvot):

(1) "The first intention of the Law, Maimonides argues, is to bring its readers to 'reject' idolatry..."  [Josef Stern];

(2) " [part III of Rambam's Guide to the Perplexed] all the commandments are reduced to one uniform purpose:  to 'train' man to 'turn wholly toward God' (III:51:620) and fear Him," [Josef Stern]

How in the world does Torah bring its readers to reject idolatry?  The answer is that there are, in fact, logical reasons for following the chukim:

"...even all the [chukim] will show to all the nations that they have been given with wisdom and understanding.  Now if there is a thing for which no reason is known and that does not either procure something useful or ward off something harmful, why should one say of one who believes in it or practices it that he is wise and understanding and of great worth?  And why should the religious communities think it a wonder?" [Rambam, The Guide, Section III, Chapter 31]

In other words, Deuteronomy 4:6 explains that the Gentiles will one day understand the rational benefits of following Sinaitic Torah, that it helps them avoid the harm of paganism and enjoy the benefits of knowing how to "turn" to G-d.


The first stage of conversion is teshuvah gemurah:

"Now, the distinguishing feature of repentance for a sin, and the symbolic content of a sin offering, is 'one's being divested of it' (III:36:540); that is, the person entirely ceases to perform the sin. 'Complete' (or perhaps, 'completed') repentance [teshuvah gemurah], Maimonides explains in the Mishneh Torah, obtains when the individual finds himself in the identical circumstances in which he had sinned with the ability to sin, but he separates [peirash] himself and does not sin 'because of his repentance.'" pg. 126 of Problems and Parables of Law by Josef Stern

The second stage is when this attitude of complete teshuvah yields performance of the commandments:

"...How, by immersing oneself, does one affect the 'intentions of his heart'?--Maimonides answers that there is in fact no direct connection between the two.  It is not through immersion that one achieves purity.  Rather, a first intention of the Law is to inculcate within people humility and obedient fear of God; for only these attitudes lead to performance of the commandments--the primary sense of 'sanctification' [qedushah] and 'purity' [taharah] (III:33:533)--and to avoidance of transgression of the commandments--the primary sense of 'uncleanness [tum'ah]' (III:47:595)." pg. 62 of Problems and Parables of Law by Josef Stern

So how does renunciation of idolatry and studying the Torah of Moses have to do with Acts 15?  Everything!  Just read for yourself:

19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

Here, we see James equate "turning" with (1) renunciation of idolatry (and its pollutions) and (2) the process of learning Torah.  

As I've mentioned in other posts, this interpretation of Acts 15 is corroborated by Jewish scholars:

"In other words, for the later rabbis circumcision followed by immersion and the full acceptance of the commandments of the Torah was both the terminus a quo and the termus ad quem for conversion.  Conversion for them was an event.  During the Biblical period, on the other hand, according to Tchernowitz, the terminus a quo of the process of absorption into Judaism was the renunciation of idolatry followed, sometimes several generations later, by circumcision, the terminus ad quem." [The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism by David Novak]

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