Monday, January 5, 2015

Did the Apostles Use Normative Jewish Tradition to Resolve Ambiguities in the Written Torah?

So here's another highlight from the on-going dialogue with Rob Vanhoff.  This highlights that a reasonable person (such as Vanhoff) must acknowledge 2 things with respect to viable Messianic halacha:  (1) there are ambiguities in the written Torah and (2) there are instances in the Apostolic writings where the Apostles used normative Jewish traditions to inform the way in which they resolved the ambiguities in the written Torah.  Rob accepts the latter point only insofar as he admits that Acts 1:12 is evidence of a traditional "limitation" with respect to walking on the Sabbath.  However, it should be noted that the ONLY explanation for this limitation is found in Jewish Tradition (e.g. Talmud).  You'll not find this explained anywhere in the written Torah (including the Apostolic Writings).


Peter January 4, 2015 at 4:48 pm
Re: “For me, ambiguities in the Torah are not a distress call requiring immediate rabbinic attention.”
This is progress. It is intellectually honest to admit that there are ambiguities in the written Torah.
If this is all the progress we make in this thread, I am happy. But I think you can take one more step towards identifying how these ambiguities can be resolved because it’s a step that was taken by Yeshua and by the Apostles.
Here’s a few examples:
Yeshua wore tzitzit based on Jewish tradition. Yeshua wore tefillin based on Jewish tradition (this is implied in Matt. 23:5 in which Yeshua does not criticize the Pharisees for wearing phylacteries but rather for making them “broad” in order to “be seen”). The Apostles respected the perimeter rule for “makom” in Acts 1:12. Paul took a Nazirite vow in Acts 21 to prove he taught people to “tois ethesin peripatein”. By the way, the word peripatein refers to halachah. So the idea there is that Paul taught people to use the customs to inform their halachah.
If Yeshua and the Apostles can use Jewish tradition to resolve ambiguities in the written Torah then I see no reason why I shouldn’t do the same.

Rob Vanhoff January 4, 2015 at 6:45 pm
You still sound like you’re saying there was a monolithic “Jewish tradition.”
I don’t think that when Yeshua tied tzitzit He ever thought, “This is the only correct and official way, defined by oral Torah, to tie tzitzit.” And I think it’s clear He saw the make and manner of the Scribes’ and Pharisees’ tzitzit and tefillin as actually contrary to the spirit of the Torah, regardless of the “oral Torah” those authorities associated with.
Yes, a “Sabbath day’s journey” does seem to imply a limited kind of walking with respect to Shabbat. As I cited a few replies back, many examples of this type are given in the article by Tim Hegg. This does not mean that the answer is to be found in the Mishnah; and as I’ve said from the beginning, my opinion is that “torah shebeal peh” is inappropriate terminology because it is anachronistic and changes the meaning of a key rabbinic concept.
You suggest, “Yeshua and the Apostles [used] Jewish tradition to resolve ambiguities in the written Torah…” I disagree. They did not read the Torah, find an “ambiguity,” and then ask their local rabbi or consult “oral Torah” for the official solution; but this evidently does describe your approach. Rather, Yeshua taught Torah, and “not as the Scribes.” His disciples did not fast when there was a traditional “halakhic” expectation that they do so. Yeshua taught them a different perspective on hand-washing than what the traditional “halakhah” expected. Same with types of korban “traditions.” He most certainly knew the difference between “paradosis” and the Word. As far as Yeshua is concerned, “rabbinic halakhah” was (and is) not the Word of God. But according to Orthodox Judaism, the “Halakhah” is binding and is the very Word of God.
So, if you are happy with this thread, that’s great. I am not. I’m still waiting to hear your definitions of “work,” “load,” and “place,” and what your sources are. I’ve asked that a few times now and am getting the sense you’re skirting the question.


I haven’t skirted anything. There’s only one primary source for a complete halachic treatment of Jewish traditions (emphasis on the word complete). When I cited to “Jewish tradition”, I gave you all the information you needed to know. You just, for whatever reason, find an accurate answer to be inadequate.


  1. This is an interesting discussion, but it seems to be taking a turn for the rude - that's a shame. I'm not sure I see the disconnect in Mr. Vanhoff's position. It is undeniable that Yeshua and His followers used some extant tradition to resolve issues on which the Torah is non-prescriptive, yes.

    Honestly, I would say that rather than being simply ambiguous, those are perhaps areas which G-d may very well leave up to us. That is, we are to wear tzitzit, but Hashem does not demand that they look a certain way beyond what He prescribes. It may be that as long as we do what the Torah commands, He doesn't especially care how else we implement the mitzvah. However, as to my own observance, I would concur that the "best practice" (to use the term in the business sense) would be to emulate Yeshua's observances as closely as we can determine what they were.

    The trouble comes with statements like "However, it should be noted that the ONLY explanation for this limitation is found in Jewish Tradition (e.g. Talmud)." and "There’s only one primary source for a complete halachic treatment of Jewish traditions (emphasis on the word complete)."

    In a sense, yes. The Talmud is the only source for authoritative, universal Jewish tradition that we have *today.* But where Vanhoff asserts anachronism, or concedes only "some" level of limitation, I think it is to question whether we can presume that this was the only source, or only explanation, or even the normative interpretation, available in Yeshua's day. In fact, was the tradition eventually codified in the Talmud even around at all at that time? Yeshua clearly disagreed with the various interpretive traditions of His day on several matters. On matters where He does not disagree with the community at large, it does stand to reason that He adhered to some normative, presumably traditional, standard. But to say that the Talmudic record is definitively the source of this tradition - largely because it's the only definitive source we have remaining to us two thousand years later - is problematic. Is that traditional standard for Yeshua the same one as found in the Talmud? Maybe, but I don't think we can take that as a given. Perhaps those traditions existed, but even if they did, it's not tenable to assert that they were pervasive throughout the Jewish community so that they would have been the ones which Yeshua took for granted - they may have been only within the Parushim, only within the school of Hillel, for example.

    All this to say - when Yeshua disagrees with the majority, Messianics should deviate from the majority and follow Yeshua's dictates, obviously. Where He leaves a point unaddressed, though, I take a middle ground between you and Mr.Vanhoff. The best practice, I think, is to assume that He left the point unaddressed because there was no need to address it - that is, the community at large had not screwed it up. But I wouldn't say that the community practice should be assumed to be what's in the Talmud today. It may be that our best guess regarding what that particular point of observance looked like in the Second Temple era is to examine the Talmud. But...this is far from a certainty. We simply can't know whether the tradition He had in view was the tradition that made it into the Talmud, or something else. Thus, while normative modern practice, rooted in the Talmud, may be a decent advisory guide for how to implement the mitzvot, I would stop short of explicitly prescribing Talmudic interpretations in a halachic manner because of the latent uncertainty regarding whether or not what exists as tradition today was the same as the tradition which prevailed in Yeshua's time.

  2. Peter,

    I don't find your argument adequate, or at least your solution. The halacha changes, thus it is simply being decided on, which is no different than what local authority already does. Which I see why Vanhoff is asking you to explain your position, instead you are being overly vague, which is not offering a solution. There was no monolithic halacha in the first century, there were competing traditions and ways to observe the commandments, thus you can throw out a core oral Torah and thus it does not solve the ambiguity, in all technicality, it is wishful thinking. Even today, take for example the halacha concerning Kosher certification, they are not at all agreed upon, what is considered kosher among the orthodox in Israel, may or may not be considered kosher among the orthodox in New York, thus the very solution you offer is still ambiguous inside halacha. I am also interested in understanding what a core Oral Torah looks like in reality, do you have an example at least?

  3. It would be best practice to emulate how Yeshua tied His tzitzit, etc. However, it should be noted that we have absolutely no way of knowing those sorts of details. The only details we have are those from Jewish tradition.

    It sounds like we're pretty much in agreement though.

  4. The core oral tradition--whatever you want to call it--is a very simple idea. It's the idea that the Torah is NOT broken. It's not broken because G-d protected those core traditions that are necessary to explain the written Torah.

    You are assuming that because the Torah contains ambiguous commands, that it is broken. There are certainly ambiguous traditions within the Oral traditions.

    Would if it was the intent of the Torah to not put a definite on certain commands? That would not be broken, but intended. For example, how could the Torah be definite on "what not to do on Shabbat", especially, such as saying, "one should not drive a car on Shabbat", the commands would be completely irrelevant to the context of the time, considering cars did not exist. This is where local authority comes in, not every situation is the same in life and may require exceptions, if there is a definite defined command, that leaves little room for exceptions. Thus an ambiguous command, is actually helpful and beneficial to a changing world and changing situations, where local authority can then apply what is needed.

    Do you believe that there is a solution--a way to resolve the ambiguities in the written Torah?

    Yes, by local authority, as is already practiced, in Christianity and Judaism. We see Yeshua practice this exactly, issuing his own local authority, we see the Apostles do this as well, for the believing community called the Way. For example, if it was not for the ruling of the Apostles, the gentiles turning to God would have all had to go through the proselyte ritual, while this is not a Torah command, it was a traditional command and was over ruled by the Apostles in opposition to the desires of the Pharisees at the time.

  5. To an extent, yes. What I maintain - and with what I think you might differ (or maybe not) - is that yes, the Talmudic tradition is all we have...but because we don't know that the traditions in the Talmud were the norm for Yeshua, we should not move toward implementing these things halachicly. They very well might be entirely different from - or even counter to - the tradition which Yeshua had in mind as acceptable when He neglected to comment on an issue. Current traditions are perhaps a guide, sure. However, Yeshua implicitly accepts (where He doesn't explicitly differ) the tradition which was in play at the time of His coming, not today's traditions, and It would be a mistake to say that He accepted the traditions as they currently stand.

    Further, this doesn't address the question of *which* stream of tradition from the first century Yeshua's silence should be taken to mean He condones. On specific issues where He does comment, for example, He sometimes aligns with Hillel, sometimes Shammai. So, given that there was a proliferation of sects of Judaism in His era, how should we determine which tradition, normative among which sect, should be taken to be the implicitly-approved baseline when He doesn't comment on an issue?

    And of course, all of this assumes that He would, in fact, affirm the need for a unified halacha on matters where neither He, nor the written Torah, is explicit. As I said, I tend to think that these may be (may be, not are) points where diversity of practice is acceptable. That is, we do what He says, but if He doesn't say, He permits us to improvise, within the bounds of the written text. If He doesn't say how to tie tzitzit, why do we presume that there is any one particular necessary way at all? If He doesn't say what scriptures to put in Tefillin, why assume He has a strong preference one way or the other? I see the necessity of a single, halachicly-approved necessity for matters of the Oral Torah - what you rightly call "core" - as being extremely, extremely limited in scope. Most matters may be left up to, "Do it according to your community standard, as long as we're universally agreed to uphold what the text actually says."

    Finally, a somewhat related question I hope you might take the time to address. Secular scholars, of course, are very keen on challenging the idea of any Oral Torah dating back to Moshe. Most of their challenges are hogwash. However, I'd be curious about your take on one in particular.

    Namely, the Tanakh records that the Torah was lost in the days of the Kings, then rediscovered in the Temple in the reign of Josiah. Now, the secularists make other, baseless, claims about this event, but the one that caught my attention was this:

    Is it reasonable to assert an oral, unwritten tradition going back to Moshe at Sinai when the Tanakh says that even the *written* text was, for a time, lost? If something written is lost, then it can be rediscovered (as it was), but if something oral is lost, then it is gone. Thus, they assert, it stands to reason that if there ever was an Oral Torah dating back to Moshe, it could be reasonably thought to have been lost when the written Torah was lost. Had it been preserved, it's reasonable to conclude that the text on which it was commentary would have been preserved, too, but that was lost. Since it could not be rediscovered when the Torah was found in the Temple, any Oral Torah we have now could date, at best, to Josiah, not Moshe.

    I'm not saying I concur with this, but I am curious as to your approach to this challenge, given that you handle the issue of oral tradition more strictly than I do.

  6. I'm not going to participate in this discussion, but I did see something at the Rosh Pina Project that seems relevant: Israeli Messianic Jews Discuss the Oral Law. I've not watched the video myself yet, but I figured you might want to see what it has to say.

  7. That's conflicts with history and legal theory.

    We'll use the example of the "Sabbath's day walk" in Acts.

    If there was no perimeter defined in an oral tradition then makom ("place") is subjective and anyone can decide what the law should be (which means everyone can make the law). But instead we see in Acts (and the Talmud) that a Sabbath's day walk is a specific, objective standard.

    I'll say it again: if there are no objective standards for the mitzvot then there is no law. It's like decreeing "thou shalt not speed" and then saying "you can define the speed limit as whatever you want."

  8. Thank you, James. Looking forward to watching it.

  9. I watched the video and it seems a tad extreme, even though I agree with only a few of their points. They should show the good in Judaism and not make it look like it is a big bad ugly religion of rabbis deceiving people or no one will listen to them, sounds like some peoples claim on Christianity, just from the other side of the coin.

  10. Just finished watching it. First, these are not Messianic Jews. Jewish, yes. But not Messianic. They hate Judaism. They are definitely Christians. What's the term? Hebrew Christians? Anyway, it was still interesting to see their point of view.