The Holy One, Blessed be He, is doing a great work around the world. He is awakening many people to the idea that beleif in the Messiah of Israel necessitates a faithfullness to the covenant God established through Moshe Rabbainu. I am far from the first to find this truth, God has always had a remnant of His people who believed and acted according to the truth. This work is an attempt to give voice and some degree of organization to the thoughts and beleifs of the many faithful people around the world who have found these things valuable and essential.
I write this as a single individual who teaches in a local congregation and practices these things every day. I am not part of any organization nor do speak for any specific group. This is a vsion that I have developed through years of study and interation with others who value Torah, living and written, and I share it with you now. In order to do so I am labeling this group the ‘Derekim’, the people of the way, and the system ‘Judaism haDerek’, Judaism of the way. This is based on Acts 24 where Sha’ul says that this term is a label for the sect of Judaism which followed Yhaushua as Messiah. I am not aware of any group thus designated and if so, this work is not representative of them.
Eventually the Derekim will be a visible group in the world, no longer a sub group of the current movemants that exist whether they be Messianic, Nazarene, Jewish or Christian. This work is provided as a guideline to be used and adapted as the community coalesces. There are many pitfalls in the development of community and many of them are addressed here so we may avoid the mistakes of those who attempted to go this way before. I submit the following as a beginning point of discussion from which we as a community can develop a cohesive vision, identity, theology and program.
The Scope and Limits of this Work
The purpose of this presentation is fourfold. First, to give a brief history of who the Derekim were in the early centuries and what it is Judaism haDerek is trying to reconstruct. The second is to give Judaism haDerek a positive identity, to say what it is and what it is not. The third is to answer some basic theological and practical questions about Judaism haDerek and last, to suggest a foundational program from which it can grow and expand according to the will of YHVH. None of these areas will be fully developed, this is not a comprehensive theological work. The history will not be exhaustive, the theological positions will not be comprehensively defended here. Those are tasks fulfilled in some of my other work and by other godly men and women in the Derekim community. The true aim of this work is to put down on paper things that are generally accepted as normative within the community for the purpose of serving as an introduction and apologetic for those interested in Judaism haDerek and to provide a paradigm from which those already involved the the community can utilize in it’s development.
A Definition of Terms
Why is what I am about to describe called Judaism haDerek? HaDerekim has been explained above. That part is simple enough. What about Judaism. Is it proper to call what we practice ‘Judaism’? The answer is yes, for two reasons. First, in the first century, the religion of the people of Judea was Judaism, whether one was a Pharisee, an Essene, a Sadducee or religious Jew not affiliated with any group. Our quote above says that the Derekim were a sect. A sect of what? A sect of Judaism, the religion of the Jewish people. The second is because the Derekim embrace the totality of the history of Israel and what their religion has meant for them from the time of Avraham to the present day. That religion since the babylonian Captivity has been identified as Judaism. The Derekim desire to reenter the debate about how to live out the covenant in our present circumstances, to join with the community of Israel in identifying normative Judaism in the twenty-first century. As practitioners of Judaism, both historically and presently, and followers of the Messiah from Nazareth, Judaism haDerek describes who we are and what we do better than most terms.
The Challenge That Lies Before Us
The challenge that lies before us in this community is enormous. In some ways it is analogous the the recreation of the state of Israel after almost two millennia. The Israelis needed to resurrect institutions, ideas and even a language that had not been used for centuries. The Derekim are embarking on an even more ambitious project. We are attempting to recreate a paradigm of theology, philosophy, belief and practice that has not existed since the second century. We too are reaching back to the ancient paths, language and even aleph-bet of Israel. The early community of Yahushua’s followers, led by Ya’akov His brother, was a community within the community of Israel who’s belief and practice was very similar to their fellow Jews except that they were no longer waiting for God’s anointed. They believed He had come, lived, died, was resurrected and now sat at the right hand of YHVH awaiting the "Day of the Lord" which they believed was right around the corner. They believed the ‘Renewed Covenant’ or the ‘Eternal Covenant’ about which Jeremiah had prophesied was inaugurated through Yahushua, that Torah was now written on their hearts and atonement for the people had finally been accomplished once and for all. They worshipped at the Temple and attended synagogue, they studied Torah and were zealous in their obedience to the commandments. They loved their people and sought both their spiritual completion and their material blessing. Gentiles came into this community and were encouraged to develop the same love for Messiah, Torah and people that their natural born brothers had.
Unfortunately, the socio-political events of the first century conspired against this community. The anti-Judaic feelings endemic to Roman culture made Gentiles less willing to adopt the religio-cultural context of which the Messiah was a part, particularly after the war with Rome. And the Jewish leadership, followed by the majority of the populace, did not believe that the man crucified by the Romans was the Messiah. Soon there were two new religions that sprung up out of the ashes of the Temple. One rejected Torah and Judaism while recasting Israel’s Messiah in a Greek mold. Christianity was the result of this development. The Rabbis of Yavneh took an ancient religion centered on a temple, priesthood and sacrifice and recast it, out of necessity, as a spiritual religion of works, ritual purity, philosophy and introspection, of which one of the fundamental tenants was that Yahushua was not the Messiah. The Derekim were ignored by both groups in their evolution because they came to be viewed as a small eccentric or heretical minority. They could have been a bridge of understanding and enriched both religions as the complete package of God’s plan but they passed from the scene with hardly a mention.
The interactions between the two majority groups over the past two thousand years further complicate things. Those who have claimed the Messiah of Israel and wrenched Him from His proper context of people, culture and understanding subjected His people Israel, the Jewish people, to the most severe forms of persecution in the name of their reinterpreted ‘Christ’. Naturally, this resulted in a strong reaction on the part of the Jewish people against the idea that the historical person, Yahushua, who was the raw material from which the church formed Jesus, the anti-Torah, anti-Jew, mangod, could ever have been the Promised One of Moshe and the Prophets. Reactionary theology developed from both sides making real communication about the central issues of covenant, peoplehood, Torah, chosenness and the Messiah nearly impossible.
So the task we have before us is this. We need to take a messianic idea which has been twisted and corrupted horribly for nineteen hundred years by a man made, anti-Jewish religion of persecutors, remove all the junk, clutter and additions to get down to the truth of Who He was and what He taught. We also need to remove nineteen hundred years of superstition, anti-messianic ideas and reactionary theology from what we know as Judaism to discover what YHVH really wants His people to live like and believe. And in order for either task to be accomplished we need to uncover the history, beleifs and theology of a small group within a small people on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean which neither of the majority groups want to acknowledge. Christians don’t want to remember the Derekim because the foundation of their religion is anti-Judaic and these people were Torah loving Jews who believed in the same Messiah they claim to. To admit that ‘St. James’, ‘St. Peter' and even the beloved ‘St. Paul’, whose example they were encouraged to follow, were Torah observant Jews their whole lives and even beyond that, taught Torah and loved the Jewish people, would be tantamount to pulling the foundation out from under their religion and cast doubt on everything they have been taught to do and believe. The Jewish people don’t want to acknowledge the Derekim because they have gladly accepted the Christian's claim that Judaism and the Messiah are mutually exclusive. Once one believes in the messiah the church claims, one is no longer a Jew but a ‘Christian’. To admit the Derekim were Torah observant Jews would be a direct challenge to that assumption and force them to look at the claims of Yahushua anew, not in a Christian context, but in a Jewish one.
But God has been at work for almost two hundred years to restore what was lost, Torah centered messianic faith. The Sabbaterians, the Hebrew Christians and the Messianic Jews have been rediscovering Torah from the Christian side, there has been a recent move among Reform Jews to reestablish Torah observance and, among a small number of orthodox Jews, an honest reevaluation of the claims of Yahushua as the Messiah of Israel. All this has pointed to the reestablishment of a visible community of Torah observant people who believe in the Messiahship of Yahushua as it existed in the first century. Those of us who are seeking to develop these ideas are on the crest of that wave.
A Brief History of the First Derekim Community
So the first question that must be answered is ‘What was the community haDerek like?’ How did they live, what did they believe, how did they understand the fulfillment of the hopes of their people? To answer that question we shall take a brief look at the life and teachings of Yahushua Himself and then look at those who comprised the community after His death and resurrection.
There is little debate anymore, in either Jewish or Christian circles, about the fact that Yahushua was a good, observant Jew. He came into the first century, he lived in Israel, he walked among the Jewish people, he lived according to their law and taught as many of the rabbis at that time did. We know that in order for His sacrifice to be acceptable, it would have to be ‘without blemish’, or in His case, sinless. Sinless according to God’s standard, Torah. Yochannan states in his account that Yahushua was the ‘Word of God’. He was Torah in the flesh. Torah was His very nature and His life and teaching constantly reflected that fact.
The accounts of His life are replete with instances of His Torah observance. He obeyed the Sabbath and celebrated the festivals, He ate the right foods and wore the signs of the covenant, He exemplified the true, righteous and holy Jew of His time and all time. And He taught the same.
He said that Torah would not pass away before the heavens and the Earth. He stated that all the commandments, the least to the greatest, the moral and the religious, the ethical and the ritual, all of them were important and adherence to them would make one great in God’s sight. And not only that but the commandments were to be obeyed even more meticulously than the Pharisees and the spirit had to be pure and holy as well, with no hypocrisy (Matt 5). The righteousness of those who followed Him and would claim His name in the future should be unquestionable. They should be known as the most pious, righteous people in the world, according to the standard of Torah.
Yahushua actually pointed to Torah as the way to eternal life. This is an idea that does not get much airtime but it is there for anyone who has the chutzpah to look. When the rich man came and asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life’, he asked the question that everyone wants to know the answer to. Here it is, the big one. And what was Yahushua’s response? ‘Believe in me and be saved’? ‘Accept me in your heart’? ‘Pray this little prayer’? None of the above! He asked the man what was written in the Torah! And the man answered with two central passages in the Torah, passages that had been, and still are, central to Judaism. And then what did Yahushua say? Do this and you will live! Not ‘think this’ or ‘believe this’ but do this. Do what? The two commands in Torah that sum up the rest of it, the ones that represent the whole. So where does He then fit into that equation? He is the Torah made flesh, He embodies it and it speaks of Him (Lk 24:44). He is the reason there is life in Torah.
Yahushua supported the Temple cult as well, which included all the sacrifices prescribed by the Levitical code. (Matt 8:4) Even amid the corruption that had become part of the Temple administration since the time of the Hasmoneans, and in His day, with the buying and selling of the High Priesthood to the Romans, He did not take the position of the Essenes and label it hopeless, nor did He disregard the system as a whole (by this I mean the Levitical and priestly rituals and sacrifices and the idea of a Temple itself), corrupt or impure, as pointless and without value. His followers would continue to participate in Temple life until it’s destruction.
He expected that His followers would continue in many of the traditions that had already been developed in Israel. He warned them against making a show of their covenantal obedience, ‘do not make your Tzitzit long or your Tefillin broad like the Pharisees’, (Matt 23:5) but he expected that these things, as they had developed up to that point would continue. His disagreements with the Pharisees, to whom he was closest and among whom his followers would gain the most adherents, stemmed largely from two areas. First, was that some equated meticulous observance of the commandments to righteousness of the heart. As He pointed out, one can be very exacting in one’s Torah obedience and still be a rotten person. He reprimanded the Pharisees (who were well aware of the hypocrites in their midst) that they would tithe even their spices but had ignored justice and mercy in their dealings with their fellow men (Matt 23:23). Yahushua told them they should concentrate on the latter, that is justice and mercy, while not neglecting the former, the tithe. Their second mistaken assumption was that the priestly rituals and purity laws should be applied to every Jew all the time. The washing of the hands, for example, came from the priests who washed themselves before they offered sacrifices. Now, in the mind of a Pharisee, he was the priest of his home and his table was his altar therefore it was proper for him to ritually wash his hands. Now while it may be acceptable to take on more Torah than applies to you, to upbraid someone who does not as a sinner is improper. This idea of maintaining priestly ritual purity would again rear it’s ugly head when it came time to expand the mission to the Goyim.
He also accepted the authority of the Pharisees as a sect to interpret the Law. They presumed to sit in Moshe’s seat and he told his followers to listen to them but not follow their example (Matt 23:2). He acknowleged the importance of proper judgements in changing historical circumstances but did not appreciate the way the Pharisees went about it. Overall, this would point to His acceptance of Jewish tradition, the Oral Law, as it had developed up to that point according to the judgements of the Sanhedrin and judges of Israel. He rejected the view of the Sadducees and the Karites of a later time, that the Oral Law is not a valuable resource in teaching the community Torah. The leaders of the community placed there by God formulated it according to His command, it had God’s stamp of authority. This is not to say that the Sanhedrin and the judges were never wrong, the Torah itself makes provision for their errors, but that would be the exception rather than the rule. As Yahushua Himself stated, tradition cannot contradict the written word of God (Mk 7:9-13) And recognizing that His presence would change some things, He authorized His followers to develop their own case law in addition to and not in place of what had already been established and it would have the authority of God behind it.
After the death and resurrection of Yahushua, things continued along the same lines. In response the events of Shava’ut, and Kefa’s preaching which placed Yahushua and the Derekim right in the middle of prophetic fulfillment, a vibrant community was formed. They were taught by the Talmidim, who were a group of observant Jews and zealots from Galilee, they met in the Temple, they ate together and said ‘the prayers’ which, no doubt, is a reference to the regular prayers of the synagogue and Temple which would eventually form the core of the Siddur.
While the fact that they preached the Messiah made the Sanhedrin nervous because of it’s political implications, the Derekim enjoyed the favor of the people (Acts 2:47) and many of them were the personification of pious, Torah-observant Jews. There was no new religion here. Yahushua had come to call sinners to repentance and adherence to the covenant. He was the fulfillment of the prophetic hope and a sign that the Day of the Lord was near. He was the ‘second Moshe’, the Prophet foretold by Moshe himself (Acts 3:22, 23). His followers had repented and embraced that truth and sought to convince the rest of their people of that fact. They were just another sect of Judaism.
But Messianism scared the Sanhedrin, that was why Yahushua was put to death in the first place. When Kefa and Yochannan stood before them, they were not charged with a crime against the Torah or even the traditions. In that case they could have easily been punished. The Sanhedrin just wanted the messianism to go away before it caused trouble with the Romans. Their decision of tolerance, recommended by Rabban Gamaliel, (Acts 5:38, 39) for the Derekim is a decision that must stand to this day because there is no comparable authority to reverse it.
The community continued to expand and were highly regarded among the people. Soon there were a group of hellenists attached to this orthodox bunch. Hellenists were less torah-observant by definition and this gave the Sanhedrin it’s first real opportunity to come against this sect. Stephen, a hellenist, was seized and brought before the council. Witnesses falsely accused him of speaking against the Temple and the Law. There is no evidence that he did any such thing but because he was a hellenist, the charges were believable. He was stoned and the rest of the hellenists were routed from the city. The Talmidim stayed, however, because they could not be accused as easily and the Derekim enjoyed the support of the populace.
One of the main perpetrators of this persecution is Rabbi Sha’ul, a Pharisee of Pharisees, blameless in his obedience to the law and traditions. He meets Yahushua on the way to Damascus and is healed by a talmid named Ananias whom Sha’ul describes as a devout observer of the Law (Acts 22:12). He said this in defense of himself and the Derekim and he mentioned it to make the point to the people of Yerushalyim that they were just as devout, Torah-observant and committed to the nation as anyone, and even more so. They were good, traditional Jews who had realized the hope of their people in Yahushua.
In the second decade after the death and resurrection of Yahushua the mission had expanded to the Samaritans, the Diaspora and geyrim; the God fearers, gentiles who had attached themselves to the Synagogue, had adopted much of the Jewish lifestyle excepting circumcision. Eventually the question came up, what is the process by which a Gentile becomes part of remnant Israel in the Messianic age? Some insisted on circumcision, that nothing had changed as far as their present understanding of conversion was concerned. Kefa and Sha’ul had seen God place His stamp of approval on these converts through His spirit without this ritual. They understood that God had circumcised their heart and placed His Torah within them as promised by Jeremiah. They were full fledged members of the community by repenting and being immersed. This was a difficult idea to swallow, particularly for the Pharisees because circumcision was central to their understanding of Israel's covenant relationship with God.
The issue was debated and resolved at the famous Jerusalem council. They decided that Sha’ul and Kefa were right, entrance to the community was by profession and immersion and circumcision was not required for gentiles. As those who were not already God fearers came out of their pagan culture, there were a few preliminary things that would be necessary if they had not already adopted these basic features of Jewish life. They needed to stay clear of idolatry, from sexual immorality, from eating blood and other non-ritually slaughtered meat and from blood or murder. These are the basics of righteousness required for everyone who wants to start on the road to covenant relationship with God. They assumed, as Ya’akov added at the end of the discussion, that they would read and learn Torah as they were integrated into the community. That these geyrim would continue in the synagogues and learn what it means to be a member of the covenant community of Israel. They would eventually internalize the values, theology, and practice of the nation they had applied for citizenship in.
Did this happen? We can see by the evidence of the literature of the Brit Chadasha that they did. It formed the framework of their understanding of religion, Messiah, time, distance and God. Allow me to illustrate some examples. Luke is possibly the only Gentile from the early community whose writings have come down to us, and he appears to be writing to another gentile. The language he uses shows that both had been immersed in Jewish life and culture and adopted it as their own. When he describes distance, he uses the term ‘Sabbath day’s journey’ rather than the Roman measure or stadia (Acts 1:12). When he describes the time of Sha’ul’s journey to Rome, he describes their voyage as taking place ‘after the fast’, that is Yom Kippor’ (Acts 27:9), which also shows they accepted halachah (oral law) up to that point. Sha’ul, when talking to the Corinthians, who by most people’s understanding were the most unregenerate Gentiles described in the Brit Chadashah, used the term ‘cup of thanksgiving’, the name of the first cup of wine drunk at the Passover Seder. This was a congregation Sha’ul founded. Who do you think taught them about Pesach? When he was arguing with the Galatians about Torah, what did he use to support his arguments? Tenach! It would not make sense for him to use an authority he regarded as passe to support his point. The Galatians obviously valued Torah and the prophets as an authority. Who taught them that? The phrase ‘lamb of God’ means nothing outside of Torah. The Gentiles to whom the leaders of the Derekim community wrote had an intimate understanding of Torah and halachah. How did a bunch of Gentiles learn all this stuff about Judaism and then make it part of themselves so that everyone was speaking the same language? Either they knew it from being part of the synagogue already or the Talmidim who introduced them to the messianic idea taught it to them. Isn’t that a scandal. ‘St. Paul’ teaching Torah and tradition to Gentiles!
Over the next two decades the message continued to spread from Yerushalyim and the original Talmidim continued to be the authority. When Sha’ul comes back to Yerushalyim thirteen years after the council, he finds a vibrant Derekim community ‘zealous for Torah’ (Acts 21:20). After his arrest, he vehemently denies not only that he never did anything contrary to Torah, but he continued to live as a Pharisee according to the traditions to that very day (Acts 26:5). The leadership in Yerushalyim under Ya’akov ha Tzaddik, and including Sha’ul, set the tone by adhering to the normative Judaism of their day. It is important to understand that just as there was diversity within the pahisaic traditions (Hillel and Shamai being the most obvious examples), there was a lot of variety in the HaDerek community as well. There were pahrisees from their various schools, preists and levites, perhaps from the sadducean traditions, followers of Yochannon the Imerser and some Esseenes, political groups including the Zealots and Siccari, and a large number of people not affilated with any group. Halachically and theologicaly the community of believers was much more diverse than many of us realize. The problem we have is we only have recognized some of the written works of the period, primarily the writings of Paul, and the diversity is not as apparent. Perhaps a look at some other period works such as the Dead Sea Scrolls will yeild some clues as to how some of the other groups within the community believed and lived.
That all changed with the revolt. Many of the Derekim fled Yerushalyim and those that remained suffered the same fate as the rest of the Jews in the city. The leadership was further decimated by the Romans as they tried to eradicate the Davidic line, from whom the Derekim had drawn the successors of Ya’akov. The talmidim died off in the years before and after the revolt and there was no comparable authority to reign in the divergent practices and beliefs among the Jews, hellenists and gentiles of the sect. Jewish religious practices were proscribed to various degrees by the Romans in the decades that followed which made the Jewish lifestyle even less appealing to the average Gentile. The Gentiles and the hellenists became selective in their halachah and without a strong authority in Yerushalyim to steer the movement in the right way, many of the communities moved away from Torah observance and halachah. The farther one went from Yerushalyim, the less Torah was followed. Antioch, Rome and Alexandria, centers of gnosticism and mystery religions, now became centers for the followers of Yahushua as well and they filled the vacuum in authority created by the razing of Yerushalyim. A few Derekim communities remained in Judea but as the minority both in Judaism and the newly developing Christianity, they had little impact on either group in the decades and centuries that followed.
These Derekim were still around in the fifth century, although by then they were an insignificant heresy to the Christians. Epiphanius has this to say about them;
"We shall now especially consider heretics who call themselves Nazarenes; they are mainly Jews and nothing else. They make use not only of the New Testament, but they also use in a way the Old Testament of the Jews. For they do not forbid the books of the Law, the Prophets and the Writings...so that they are approved of by the Jews, from whom the Nazarenes do not differ in anything, and they do profess all the dogmas pertaining to the prescriptions of the Law and the customs of the Jews, except they believe in Messiah. They preach that there is but One God and His Son Yahushua. They are learned in the Hebrew language, for they, like the Jews, read the whole Law, then the Prophets...They differ from the Jews because they believe in Messiah, and from the Christians in that they are to this day bound to the Jewish rites such as circumcision, the Sabbath and other ceremonies.."
They continued to exist in small pockets into the second millenium, even being subject to the inquisition for their Judaizing. They were know as the Pasaginians then, a name of Latin origin that describes them as wanderers, much like the other Jews of the Middle Ages.
This tells us a lot about our ancestors. To briefly sum it all up, the following is a basic description of the Derekim based on all the previous information, a description of what we are trying to reestablish at the end on the second millenium. Epiphanius also tells us that most of them lived in the Land, they valued the promise of it to Avraham. They were zealous for Torah and followed the Tenach as well as the writings of the Brit Chadashah. They followed the Law and the customs of the Jews, from whom they differed in nothing save the fulfillment of the Messianic hope. They knew Hebrew and they followed the traditional Torah and haftorah readings. Many of them were very nationalistic, their ranks included Zaelots and Siccarii. And because of all this they were approved of by the Jews.
That is the goal. To equate Yahushua with Torah righteousness and lifestyle. A believer in Yahushua should be a pious Jew by definition. Not a Christian who follows Torah or a Jew that believes in ‘Jesus’ but an individual whose belief in the Messiahship of Yahushua naturally expresses itself in Torah piety. In the first century, when someone claimed to be a Derekim, that person was a Tzaddik, by definition. We should seek to be similarly defined.
Now that we have a basic understanding of what the original Derekim were like and what happened to them, we can take a look at several of the important issues involved in reconstructing their community two millennia later. The concerns are many and correct understanding and implementation will make the difference between success and failure, between a comprehensive, unified community and a disorganized, confused movement. Some have sought to go where we are heading and have gotten lost and bewildered along the way. In reality, the difficulties are not in understanding the history. The facts are rather straightforward for anyone willing to put aside their preconceived ideas and assumptions and look at them honestly. The real issue is whether are not we are willing to examine some of our most dearly held beliefs and their underlying assumptions and cast them aside if they are not in line with history and the Scriptures. And then to adopt a system of understanding and a way of life that makes one stand out in the crowd, that makes one part of an historically persecuted minority. It is an issue of sacrifice. Of self, of ego, of family, of time, of possessions, of life. Not an easy thing but it is only when we sacrifice our life with all it’s baggage and truly seek to become the men and women God desires that we will succeed.
Now that we have a basic understanding of what the original Derekim were like and what happened to them, we can take a look at several of the important issues involved in reconstructing their community two millennia later. The concerns are many and correct understanding and implementation will make the difference between success and failure, between a comprehensive, unified community and a disorganized, confused movement.
Are Derekim part of the Messianic Jewish Movement?
One of the central issues that needs to be addressed is that of identity. With whom do we identify, or, as I have heard it poignantly stated before, with whom will we be persecuted? Many people who hear of us and what we are doing will identify us with the Messianic Jewish Movement because we believe in Yahushua which puts us under the heading of ‘Christian, and we do Jewish things’. Both Jews and Christians who are knowledgeable enough often make this identification. The question becomes, is Messianic Judaism as it is presently understood as a theological system and as a community an accurate representation of the early judean community?
Let’s look at the Messianic Jewish Movement. Many of us may be familiar with it and some of us are still involved with it to some degree. The following discussion is about the popular notion of what the Messianic Jewish movement is all about and how it describes and understands itself as exemplified by the Messianic Jewish Alliance, the Messianic Union, related organizations and their leaders. Regardless of what may be their deepest desire, which is to be regarded as a valid expression of Judaism, just as the Orthodox or Reform movements are, they are not and they never will be. Because in their attempt to do so, they have kept one foot firmly planted within the Christian community. A large part of their theology and worldview come from Christianity. While they do reject replacement theology and so make room for themselves as Jews within the Christian community, they have not, in most cases, developed practices and institutions endemic to Judaism. As such there are some fundamental problems with the Messianic Jewish Movement’s understanding of things and this results in confusion and disunity.
The first thing we must note is that Messianic Judaism is not a community as commonly understood. A community is a group of people who have a common identity, common law, common interests and ideas and common traditions that unify them. Other than a common identity, i.e. a common label, there is little that is common in Messianic Judaism. There is no cohesive leadership or authority structure within Messianic Judaism to establish basic standards for the community, either theologically or practically. As group, Messianic Judaism is a movement centered around a vaguely defined idea, far from homogeneous and more like Protestant Christianity in expression than Judaism. The main reason for this is Messianic Judaism’s attempt to keep a foot in the Christian community while attempting to place the other within Judaism. The result of this is a conglomerate of diverse theologies and practices all legitimized through the acceptance of a common label.
For example, there is a wide spectrum of religious practice among Messianic Jews and their congregations. Some congregations are adopting Orthodox or Hasidic practices and others have kept mainstream church worship traditions. Ultimately, in the Messianic Jewish point of view, there are no standards because there is no right and wrong in religious expression. Because while many Messianic Jews and even some Christians know that Passover and Yom Kippor are Scriptural and Christmas and Easter are not, the Messianic Jew cannot say with any real authority that the latter are wrong. This is because Messianic Jews see themselves as part of the ‘church’ and they look at Christians as their brothers. And because of this they accept, to a greater or lesser degree, the Christian interpretation of Scripture. They are all part of the ‘body’, the Messianic Community, the universal Church. The Gentile Christians are their brothers, fellow heirs in the body of Messiah. But after saying the ‘sinner’s prayer or some other ritual of entrance, the Jew and the Gentile take divergent paths from there. Once they come into the ‘Church’ they have different responsibilities and duties. The result of this is the practical understanding that God does not really care that most of ‘the body’ are worshipping Him according to the practices of the pagans (Deut 12) or the ‘Traditions of men’ and while He may be pleased that some are worshipping Him according to Torah, it was really only meant for ‘ethnic’ or ‘natural’ Israel. In the great scheme of things it doesn’t really matter because both groups have the same eternal life. I have read this described as the ‘One faith, one baptism, two expressions’ theory. One cannot do enough Scriptural gymnastics to support such an idea. To do so is to ignore all the warnings of Moshe and the Prophets about the adoption of pagan practices and the corruption of the pure religion YHVH has given to the people of Israel. It supports the spoken and unspoken assumption of the ‘church’ that the ‘Old Testament’ isn’t relevant. It is also to embrace the absurd idea that Shimon Kefa and that great Pharisee Rav Sha’ul accepted Gentiles into the community of Israel while allowing them to continue to practice paganism. That they allowed pagans to rename pagan practices and celebrate them with equal validity alongside the festivals of YHVH and see nothing wrong with it. That Gentiles could come into covenant relationship with the God of Israel while thumbing their noses at all the things those who had gone before held dear. That they believed the Messiah had come to give ready acceptance to both Jews and Gentiles in the small, unique community of Remnant Israel, regardless of their behavior or the forms of their religious expression. Anyone who wants to become part of the commonwealth of Israel through the Messiah does so in the context of covenant. And covenants have stipulations that are meant to be adhered to and if they are not, there are negative consequences. For Messianic Jews to look at and accept Christians as equally acceptable brothers ‘in the Lord’ and as legitimate ‘converts’ into the commonwealth of Israel is to destroy the basis for the covenant relationship God has always had with His people.
Another problem within Messianic Judaism is that they don’t know what to do with Gentiles. In the first century community, Jews and Gentiles worked in partnership. A Gentile like Titus could study with Rabbi Sha’ul and the faith and piety he developed qualified him for the highest positions of leadership. Jews and Gentiles, working side by side, supporting and encouraging one another as fellow citizens of remnant Israel, one new man unified in belief, practice, responsibility and privilege. Many in Messianic Judaism don’t see it this way. The confusion again results from having one foot in either camp. On the one hand, they want to see themselves as a legitimate branch of Judaism and to this end, they have set up many institutions in which the leadership and policy bodies are made up of ethnic Jews (although in Messianic Judaism the definition of an ‘ethnic Jew’ does not usually follow ‘traditional’ halachah). However, many Gentiles have become attracted to Judaism, as has been the case throughout history, and a brand of Judaism that allows them to maintain their belief in their Messiah is particularly attractive. Many Christians have come to see the value in understanding the jewishness of their original faith and some have even been motivated to adopt some Jewish practices. And others have seen the value of Torah as the correct way of life for the redeemed person and have sought to apply it all to the best of our knowledge and understanding. But when a Gentile comes into Messianic Judaism they find out that their participation is limited to the perimeter. In the MJAA they are not allowed full membership. They are not ordained as Rabbis. They are often kept out of the intimate life of the local community. Too often Messianic Judaism emphasizes birth to the extent seems like a ‘Jews only’ club. There is no mechanism or procedure to allow a Gentile’s full participation in the institutions of Messianic Judaism.
Messianic Judaism is ambivalent about Torah and covenant. Since it seems as though Messianic Judaism is another Christian denomination of sorts, they have sought to pour the wine of Christianity into the wineskin of Judaism. Outwardly, many of their practices are Jewish. They wear tallit when they worship and they worship on Shabbat. They celebrate many of the festivals and they wear kippot. Some synagogues even have Torah scrolls and a few of the congregants can read it. But inwardly, most of their theology and belief is Christian. Their creeds, their understanding of the Messiah, the nature of God, salvation and especially their attitude and understanding of the Mosaic covenant come from Christianity. They don’t know how important it is. On one hand, they’re Jewish so they know, at some level, it is important to them. On the other hand, their brothers, the Christians, don’t obey the mosaic covenant at all. In fact, they have adopted many practices of the pagans, something the terms of the covenant prohibit. But they are ‘saved’ just the same. Yet, both the Messiah and His Talmidim taught about the importance of Torah and lived it out in their lives. And these are the acknowledged founders of the ‘church’. But the ‘church’ has taught for almost two thousand years that Torah is not essential for salvation, it is not important in a believer’s life and may even be an impediment to the Christian drawing closer to God. So if it’s not essential to salvation, Messianic Judaism cannot, with any real authority, require, or even strongly encourage, Torah obedience among it’s adherents. Christian understanding says Torah is not important so as long as Messianic Judaism remains in the Christian camp, Torah obedience will just be one option of acceptable Christian religious expression among many. It will be a means to an ‘evangelistic’ end and will continued to be looked at with suspicion (and rightly so) by non-messianic Jews.
The Crucial Issue of Identity for Those Who Follow the Messiah Today
Ultimately, the question which we must have the courage to face and answer is, ‘are Christianity and Judaism compatible at all?’ For those who claim that the man who lived two thousand years ago is the Messiah, the question becomes is the religion that has centered around him for eighteen hundred years a proper or accurate reflection of the truth He represents. Messianic Judaism has said yes and attempted to make the marriage work and the results have been a confused, ill-defined, heterogeneous movement. There are fundamental differences between Judaism and Christianity in theology, practice and in the religious communities themselves which require a negative answer to the question. Christianity evolved as a reaction against Judaism and the Jewish people around the period of the first Jewish war with Rome. It proscribed Jewish practices more vehemently than did the Roman government. It began to understand the Scriptures through the eyes of Plato and Aristotle instead of Moshe and the prophets. It stole the Sacred Scriptures and made them simply a preface to it’s own and then redacted itself into them to create a sense of legitimacy. The Church changed the Messiah from a Torah obedient Jewish man Who loved His people to a universal, anti-Torah demigod. And once they had the machinery of the state at their disposal, they rigorously persecuted the true people of God, something that continues to this day. Judaism is a triad of Torah, people and land put together by God Himself never to be forsaken or replaced. Christianity has proscribed the Torah for it’s adherents, persecuted the people and moved the promised land to the heavenlies. How can there be any perceived continuity between the two? Judaism holds dear everything Christianity abhors. Christianity is a man made religion, a combination of Roman and Babylonian religion, Greek philosophy and some basic Jewish ethics (although with all the murder and mayhem perpetuated in the name of ‘Christ’ over the centuries, the last point could certainly be disputed). Christianity has taken some basic truths and ideas, removed their foundation and created a new religion. To put Judaism back into Christianity is to put a square peg in a round hole. They cannot be combined in a way that is truly meaningful and consistent. When historically accurate biblical truth is presented to Christians, it is not an education about the roots of their faith, but something completely new from the Scriptures they claim. Christianity is not a form of Judaism, it doesn’t even spring from the same well. Christianity does not flow from the well of of Moshe and the prophets, but from the well of Roman and Alexandrine anti-Semitism (used in the modern sense of the word), the well of gnosticism and the dualism endemic to Greek philosophy, the well of Babylonian and Roman religious practice and culture. It is those who seek the truth and leave such things behind that follow the admonitions of Isaiah to ‘come out and be separate’ and truly understand the implications of Rabbi Sha’ul’s statement that light and darkness, of the temple of idols and God have nothing in common. God has one way and that is the way of Moshe and the prophets, of Yahushua and Sha’ul, a way of truth and historically accurate expressions of faith that does not add any of the dirt and filth of the world.
The Implications of Our Identity
There are important implications to formulating identity in this way. Alignment with the historic people of Israel will continue to be met with suspicion by the Jewish people. The reaction they have always had to those who claim Yahushua as the Messiah will continue but by ceasing to identify with the church in any meaningful way, ideologically, theologically or financially, headway will be made. By consistently emphasizing the things that have always been important to the people of Israel such as Torah, the land, and piety, and putting the lessons of both the first and second Moshe into practice, the fulfillment of Rabbi Sha’ul’s hope that the community of Messiah will make Israel jealous will be realized.
The reaction from the Christian community will be different. They will have a degree of confusion form people who have embraced the Messiah they claim, yet reject the church’s historical legitimacy as the heirs to the faith of Yahushua’s original followers. As we consistently declare we are not Christians, that we do not accept their theology and interpretation of the Scriptures, that we are not their intimate brothers and ‘co-heirs’ with their messiah, they will reject us and look at us with suspicion. This is not to say that we will cease to cooperate with Christians in encouraging righteousness among all peoples and working towards common goals, just as the Jewish and Christian communities do today. But cooperation in ‘evangelism’ or other such things will no longer be possible. We are not preaching the same messiah and our idea of discipleship will be completely different. Eventually the Christian reaction will be to label us a cult of some sort, which in an interesting phenomenon. ‘Cults’, according to Christianity, are groups that operate outside of accepted ‘orthodoxy’. And how is orthodoxy defined? By majority consensus, and, in the past, by ‘bigger guns’. It is not defined by a consistent, honest interpretation of the Scriptures. If it was, Christianity would be the largest and most successful cult of all. Of course, no one will look at it that way and we will be the ones so labeled.
A short diversion about the use of language here. I’ve thrown out a a lot of terms here; salvation, Torah, Israel, Messiah, Church, Jew, Christian and others common in our religious debate. The definition of these terms is something that we need to discuss as well in the community. Messianic Judaism has adopted, for the most part, a Christian understanding of these terms and many of us, having been brought up in a Christian environment, still think that way as well. As such, it would be easy to conclude from my statements that I believe Torah, the Law, is essential for salvation and all the Christians are going to hell. Taking salvation, Israel and Torah, understanding them in the common Christian sense and combining them as I have, it would be easy to come to that conclusion. Nothing could be farther form the truth however. One does not have to be part of the ‘commonwealth of Israel’, abstain from pork or celebrate the festivals to receive a place in the world to come (See Israel, the Goyim and the Eternal Destiny of Man for more info here). That is another issue completely but it illustrates the point that if we are going to understand Scripture in a consistent matter, we cannot blindly accept Christianity's definition of these terms for they have a different meaning in Judaism and may have meant something else to the first century community.
The result of taking these positions is to identify with a community that doesn’t want us and reject a community that might. It would appear to be a recipe for failure. It is not because consistent truth combined with love stands on it’s own merit. And we have the promise of God that the community He created would overpower even the gates of Hell. Israel stands on three things. First, is the land promised to Avraham, Yitzak, Ya’akov and their descendants and all who would join them. Second is the Torah, the truth of God, the truth many godly men have worked so hard to uncover and understand and then apply. This has often been emphasized more than anything else. But there is something even more essential. While it is true that many are seeking to be the most Scripturally accurate expression of God’s community today and the process of this recovery has seen the development many wonderful ideas and a consistent framework from which to understand and apply the Scriptures, that is not what is going to draw most people. And while Judaism has many beautiful rituals and forms of religious expression that reflect the mind of God, that is not going to do it either. The thing that will draw people in and keep them as they grow in understanding is the third thing in the triad; community, Am Yisra’el, the people of Israel. Before Israel was in the Land, before God gave us Torah, Israel was a people, a community. Israel is more than a religion, more than a political entity, more than a world view, it is a people. If we focus on the truth that the world will know we belong to God because of the love that we have for one another, our growth will take care of itself. If we show love and acceptance when others will not, we will grow. If we preach truth and let the Ruach haKodesh take care of the conviction or even the condemnation, we will grow. If we place our emphasis on living right instead of believing correctly, many people whom God has touched or who are earnestly seeking Him will find a place of encouragement where they can work out their relationship with God on their own terms while being surrounded with love and truth. We need to be inclusive, rather than exclusive, while at the same time, maintaining the integrity of the community. Truth is on our side, therefore time is as well. We can be confident that when either a Jew or a Christian asks us why, we will have the most Scripturally consistent and accurate answer available. And for those among either group that value their relationship with God, the Scriptures and the truth, they will seek and they will find. And they will find us.
How Do Derekim Relate to The Established Judaisms?
I use the term ‘Judaisms’ because, as the case in the first century, Judaism today is not a monolithic community. There are Reform Jews, conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews (with many subsets even there), and reconstructionist Jews, to name the major groups. All of them have developed their own expressions of what it means to be an true follower of the God of Israel. They are all sitting at the table of Israel, and, as the rabbis of old did, debating what it means to be a son of Abraham, what it means to be in covenant relationship with his God and how that covenant is to be lived out in the present day. The Judaism of HaDerek once had a place at that table and is seeking to have one again. But we’ve been gone a long time.
This is not an easy thing. For while we have established that we are firmly in the camp of Israel and Judaism, we can ask ‘what now’? How do we interact with this community, particularly since they are not really fond of us nor do they, in most cases, even acknowledge our validity. And how do we come back into the stream of Judaism after such a protracted absence during which tradition and halachah continued to develop in the Diaspora, in a world far removed from the Temple and the land, a world of persecution and ghettos, of superstition and Greek enlightenment, and often in reaction against messianic belief, however defined. These are issues that need to be resolved if we are to speak and act with one voice in the larger community of Israel.
The first thing we must all do, some to a greater extent than others, is to unlearn much of what we know. We are pouring new wine into new wineskins. Much of our task is the creation of those wineskins into which God can pour new wine. We cannot create our wineskins with a patchwork of Pentecostalism, Chassidism, Calvinism, Platonism, Rabbinism, and anything else that may suit you or you have in your closet. I have already mentioned the importance of redefining some basic theological terms, as in so doing, we will develop a new theological and philosophic framework in which to understand Scripture, our relationship with our Creator and His plan for this world. That will involve a discovery and reeducation for many of us in the intricacies of Semitic thought, in contrast to our western, Greek way of thinking. And while we will leave many questions unanswered, many of which should remain so, there needs to be a free exchange of ideas among all of us so we can develop a paradigm that is authentically Jewish yet uniquely Derekim while being consistent, realistic and faithful to Scripture. We need to educate ourselves in rabbinical ways of thought so we can understand some parts of the culture and people the Messiah came to and so we can communicate intelligently with the other Judaisms of our day. We need to break cleanly from our past in the way we use terms, (such as referring to the ‘church’ as part of the body of Messiah’ and the equation of ‘Yahushua’ and ‘Jesus’) and the identity we hold (Jewish, not Christian). This will require work on our part such as immersion in Jewish literature, philosophy and theology to help us understand and develop an identity with Israel and the Jewish people. It will require interaction with the Jewish community and support of Jewish institutions. And along with all that, we must also face the challenge of how we should then live, what the halachah of our community should be.
How do Derekim approach Torah and Halachah?
As we reenter this community (like it or not, here we come!) and hold to Torah as the way of life, we must ask how we are to obey Torah. Do we take the words as they are written and start over? Some seventh day Adventists, the Worldwide Church of God, the Assemblies of Yahweh and lots of other small church groups have attempted this route. But they have not sought to establish continuity with the historic people of Israel. Do we just jump in to the Orthodox stream as it exists today, simply adding our messianic belief? The answer lies somewhere in between reinventing the wheel and adopting the status quo. We cannot accept Orthodox Judaism as is because it rejects our messianic belief and some of it’s traditions and theological understanding have evolved in opposition to that belief. We cannot understand or evaluate the first century Derekim exclusively through the eyes of present day Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism developed in response to the Diaspora and Christian persecution. It embraced the superstitions of the dark ages and the thought of the Greek philosophers. The result, as was the case even in Yahushua’s time, was that some of the reasoning and assumptions behind their halacha was flawed and resulted in practices that were not reflective of the will of God or consistent with the rest of Torah. Such practices and ideas can have no place of real value in our halachic system. But most of what is historically consistent in Judaism is valuable and meaningful. And by ‘historically consistent’, I am referring to what has been consistent from at least the first temple period. Most of the traditions, many of which we take for granted, are beautiful and are filled with both obvious and intricate meaning and they help us develop our relationship with God and our expression of Torah obedience. And if we truly desire to be recognized among the greater commonwealth of Israel, we must respect the community’s authority to establish halachah, historically and presently. And by the community, I mean the larger community of Israel who have taken the covenant seriously whether they be reform, conservative or orthodox as well as the historical consensus that bridges the gap even between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jewry. Our disagreements with their judgements must be undertaken with the utmost seriousness. We must show respect to the history and the development of the people with whom we seek identity. Keep in mind that the common divisions of Reform, Orthodox and Conservative did not even exist two hundred years ago. Before that one was either an observant Jew who took his covenant relationship with God seriously or he was not. So while the divisions and their consequent religious and political realities exist and we have to deal with them as such, attempting to fit into a category that did not even exist until recently is not something we should be preoccupied with. It is the seriousness with which we take our covenant responsibilities that matters.
Therefore, we do not do things only to seek the approval of Orthodox (or any other form) Judaism. While it may be a consideration and a sign of respect to give heed to the institutions and traditions they have developed, their acceptance of us is not something we have any control over. Individually, we may participate in some of those traditions because we find value in them or to specifically to relate to the Orthodox or Chasidim. But as a community, it would not be proper to blindly enforce a body of tradition that has developed without messianic consideration or the Derekim. Ultimately, we must obey God rather than men. Some of our disagreements are in areas we cannot compromise, our messianic belief, for example. There will be other areas of Torah and tradition that were part of the Judaisms of the first century that were discarded and we are trying to revive which will put us at odds with the present Judaisms. There will be things we should embrace that we find inconvenient or pointless. And there are beautiful traditions we embrace because they are right. The challenge for us as a community is to know which traditions fit in which category for we cannot be, as many Messianics are, selective in our Torah obedience and our halacha, arbitrarily doing what we personally find meaningful and ignoring the rest. This is a task that must be taken up with the utmost seriousness, founded on biblical integrity and historical accuracy and with a keen understanding of present application.
One of the dangers that results from taking Torah very seriously while maintaining the dualistic mindset inherent in our western thinking is to be very strict and judgmental about Torah obedience. Are any of us ‘Torah obedient’? Not completely. Yet too often if we come across someone who doesn’t value certain things in Torah the same way we do we are abrasive and condemning. We think that if someone does not keep Kashrut the way we do or celebrate Shabbat the way we do or adhere to some tradition we do that they are less acceptable to God or less holy. This kind of attitude can be very destructive. What we need to do is treat Torah as a means to an end and not an end in itself. Torah is the path by which we enter into and develop our relationship with God. There are those who are farther along in that relationship than others and we are all in the process. Do not condemn those who are not as ‘advanced' or ‘pious’ as you are. You were there once, we all were. We must be patient and encouraging, building up a community in love. That is a powerful witness in itself.
Beyond recapturing the practices and traditions of the first century community, I would propose the following as a starting point for evaluation and embracing Jewish tradition in general. There are traditions that are part of Judaism in general, traditions that span the divisions of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, Ashkenazic and Sephardic. These traditions, such as the seder, the siddur, the prohibition of milk and meat, and the division of the Torah portions, for example, are ones that are understood by all of Judaism to be normative. That is not to say that all of the Judaisms practice such things but they all recognize that if one were to be a ‘good Jew’, one would adhere to such traditions. These are traditions we should respect and consider embracing. And this is the reason why. If we are seeking to be part of the larger community of Israel, the recognized people of God, we must respect the consensus of that community in matters of faith and practice, as long as those things do not directly contradict the Scriptures. God has given the community the authority to interpret Torah and we must show our loyalty to the community by respecting those interpretations that have become part of the historical fabric and identity of the Jewish people. We have seen that Yahushua had this same attitude toward tradition. The Pharisees did not ask Him why he was harvesting on Shabbat (Matt 12) or why He didn’t wash His hands (Matt 15). Their accusations were all directed at the Talmidim, not at Him. Could that be because He observed these traditions to show Himself to be above reproach in the eyes of the community? Certainly the neglect of such traditions cannot usually be construed as sinful. However, Yahushua apparently agreed with the idea that the community, at least those who take Torah and covenant seriously have the authority to determine what is normative in the practice of Torah, to determine what makes one pious. Throughout Israel’s history, righteous men who took their covenant responsibility seriously have developed traditions to assist them in fulfilling those responsibilities. Some of those traditions have spanned the continents and the centuries. It is those traditions and Torah interpretations we need to embrace to show ourselves as part of the larger community of Israel.
This section is an intersting one. Theology may be the wrong term, one I have derided in the past. I once said that ‘theologian’ was not one of the ‘offices’ described in the new testament. Theology has resulted in more divisions within the community of messiah and in all religions than anything else. However, everyone has a set of core belief or assumptions from which they move through the present world. I have described these basics as the tools and equipment you put in your backpack as you embark on this journey seeking God. Many of us fill our backpacks with wothless trinkets that only slow us down. We have our pet theologies we drag with us and often they cause division or they blind us to the truth. The true seeker of God will travel very light, taking only the essentials and learning to adapt as new things come to light. Our minds need to be open and malleble like clay in the potter’s hands. Our minds need to be like water, flowing, adapting to every twist and turn in the journey. Our clay is often hard (worthless to the potter) and our water is frozen into ice. Our way of thinking does not change, our beliefs even about the most trivial things are set in stone and there is no way we will get very far on the journey thinking and acting in such a way.
One of the primary goals in my life is to see the community of Yahushua live in the power they did in the first century. To my knowledge, there are no such communities in either christianity, judaism or any other religion that operate in such consistent, verifiable power. There are miracles and healing that happen in every religious faith but they are sporadic. Priests and rabbis pray, shammans engage in their rituals and incantations but it is all hit or miss. When Kefa or Sha’ul exercised spiritual power, there was no question about the result. Because such power is not exercised today by any group, we will have to seek outside the box. We will have to shoot some sacred cows. We will have to explore some things that in mainstream jewish and christian traditions have been off limits. We need courage and discernment coupled with maturity and a good knowledge of the scriptures.
That having been said, below are some of the things I have found essential in my ‘backpack’ as I am on this journey.
Ultimately, we believe that God is beyond our understanding. God is the ‘Boundless One’, His Existence transcends time and space and is unlike anything that exists, corporeal or non-corporeal. His essential nature, characteristics and person are unknowable to us and to anything created. This is, in a sense, God’s ultimate holiness, God is completely separate from the created order. However, God chose to create this world and the universe around it and also chose to relate to it so there are things we can know about God, but only indirectly. We experience the presence of God and see God in action through emanation, the characteristic actions through which God interacts with the world. In a sense God’s emanations are like the wind, we cannot see it but we see it’s effects.
What are some of the characteristics or actions by which God relates to the world? God is revealed as Father, embodying what we know as masculine characteristics like power, knowledge, judgement, and glory; as Spirit characterized by feminine traits like mercy, wisdom, and life; and by the Son, the foundation of grace and clemency. Is this Trinitarian? No, not in the Christian sense of the word. We affirm the fundamental tenant of Judaism, "Sh’ema Israel, YHVH Elohenu, YHVH Echad", God is one, God is a unity, not of three ‘persons’ but a unity of characteristics and essence which cannot be reduced to a singularity.
It is by the name YHVH, and the biblical characteristics and actions that are ascribed to Him, that the ‘Unknowable One’ has chosen to reveal Himself to the world, and to Israel in particular. It is YHVH that demonstrates justice and forgiveness in His relationship with man, a relationship He desires and has done everything to encourage. And His greatest desire is for mankind, individually and corporately, to mature in righteousness and draw close in union with Him.
Understanding the Messiah
Yahushua is YHVH in the flesh. Yahushua is the unique, first begotten Son of God. We understand His divinity as ancient Judaism understood the Messiah would be YHVH. This is accomplished through the analysis of many texts in which two YHVH’s are clearly present (ex. Gen 19:24, Ex 24:1, Isa 44:6) and which the official Targums paraphrased as the ‘Word of YHVH’, a title for the Messiah. Yahushua is the Torah made flesh. Ancient Judaism has also understood many texts that refer to YHVH are also speaking of Messiah, equating the two (ex. Isa 8:14, Zech 12:10, Jer 23:5-6). An analogy I and others have found helpful is that of taking a glass of water from an infinite ocean. The ocean is God, the ‘boundless one’ and the glass in the physical body of Messiah. By filling that body with water from the ocean, Yahushua has all the characteristics, identity and essence of God but is not God in totality.
We believe that the Messiah of Israel is the historical person Yahushua, born in Bethlehem of Judea during the reign or Augustus Caesar and Herod the Great. (Mic 5:2, Dan 9, Matt 2:1-6). He was born miraculously of Miriam, before she and Yosef had consummated their marriage (Isa 7:14, Matt 1:18) and was of the line of David. He began His public ministry during the reign of Tiberius Caesar (Lk 3:1), teaching the truths of Torah and the Kingdom of God (Matt 5, Lk 4:43, Isa 61, Deut 18:15) and He performed many miraculous signs and healings (Lk 8, Matt 11:4-6). He was betrayed by one of His talmidim (Ps 41:9, Mk 14:10), was condemned by the Jewish authorities (Matt 26:62-66) and was crucified by the Romans (Mt 27:27-37) at the appointed time (Dan 12) in order to achieve atonement for the people (Isa 53:6-12). After three days He was resurrected (Ps 16:10, Mt 28:9) and ascended to sit at the right hand of God (Lk 22:69, 24:50-51, Ps 110:1-5). He will return to judge the world and bring His own into their reward (Rev 20).
An Understanding of Salvation
There are two distinct understandings of salvation which we must deal with here. The popular understanding of salvation and the biblical understanding. The popular understanding is the idea that one’s deeds or beliefs determine one’s eternal destiny. Depending on the particular group, what belief or deeds accomplish this salvation vary widely. The Scriptures as a whole do not have a highly developed theology of the olam haba (the world to come) or what is required to secure one’s place in it. The Bible does, however, have a very clear view of what happens in this world and it is there where we must focus our attention in order to define what salvation means in the community of Messiah.
Salvation in the history of Israel has always meant achieving a state of peace, wholeness and security, usually as a result of deliverance from some calamity. The Israelites experienced salvation at the time of the exodus, David sang about salvation in the psalms, the prophets talked about salvation from the judgement of God. It is into this context we must put our understanding of salvation. The talmidim of messiah expected the day of the Lord to come very quickly, that day being a day of judgement on the entire world in which only those who were in the community of Messiah will be saved. That is saved from the temporal wrath of God on the earth.
How does one enter this community and be so delivered? By faithfulness to YHVH and trusting in His Son. This is not stale knowledge based assent to some facts but a life that demonstrates commitment to the way and values that God has outlined throughout the Scriptures. Faith and works cannot be separated, they are two essential parts of salvation and relationship with God in covenant. The mikveh (immersion) is an outward demonstration of this commitment and the change of ‘status’ that results from entering into the remnant community of God.
The Torah and Scripture
Simply defined, Torah consists of the five books of Moshe, B’reshit to Devarim (Genesis to Deuteronomy). It contains the covenant and so lists our obligations to God in that relationship and the proper context into which we put all of life. It shows us how to properly express our love to God. It is also a revelation of YHVH in it’s purest form. The Torah flows from His essential nature and is therefore, eternal just as He is. It will not be changed or discarded for another torah or the One who does not change will have done so. The five books of Moshe is the foundation of all other revelation and standard by which it is judged.
The prophets and writings, that which makes us the rest of the Tenach (what Christians call the ‘Old Testament’, is sometimes classified under the category of Torah. There are within the other writings a gradient of revelation. The revelation recorded by Isaiah or Daniel in their books is on a much higher level than that of Proverbs or the Books of Kings. It is the difference between speaking to God face to face (Moshe), seeing a vision (Daniel) or recording sacred history (Kings). The reality is that except for the Torah where YHVH spoke face to face with Mosh and the prophets who were repeating messages they received from God, the Scriptures contained within the Bible are the history of man’s relationship with God written by men (not dictated by God).
The books of the Ketuvim Derekim (the writings of the Derekim or what Christians call the ‘New Testament’) are classified according to these categories with two additional difficulties added. We know that the collection of manuscripts we have today are extremely varied, so much so that scarcely a word or phrase within can be relied upon with 100% accuracy. The second is that the books contained within the collection were decided upon by a group that was far removed from the original Derekim in faith, culture, practice and belief (i.e. the church). As such we must wonder if the Derekim of the first century would have chosen to recognize as a community the same books the ‘church’ did two or three centuries later. We must evaluate these books honestly while still believing that the overall message they contain is a valid description of the Messiah’s activities and life, the community that followed him and lines up with what God revealed through His servants, the prophets. We must also be willing to accept that there may be books not included within our present cannon that are equally valuable expressions of the faith of Israel and even of believers in Messiah. These may be contained in apocryphal works or the Dead Sea Scrolls (the Damascus document was originally classified as ‘Jewish Christian’) or some as yet undiscovered manuscripts.
In Jewish tradition there are other things that are considered ‘torah’. The Talmud and other rabbinical writings are often given weight similar to the five books of Moshe, often with the claim that it was an ‘Oral Torah’ given at the same time as the written one on Sinai. My belief is that which is contained within the Mishnah is a compilation of many of the rulings that had come down from the time of Moshe to the first century as the community of Israel sought to live out the Torah in their changing times. The commentary on the Mishnah, what we know as the Talmud, is an extension of that. It is the consensus of the community and it’s judges (appointed by God) and as such needs to be given considerable weight as we define our covenant obligations. It does not, however, have the authority of written Torah and it is fallible.
The Role of the Spirit
The spirit of God, which is an intimate and personal revelation of Himself, since the time of the Messiah, has been made available to the wider congregation of Israel for the purpose of empowering them to fulfill the mission YHVH has given them to take His truth to the world. The primary role of the spirit is to empower the individual of faith to fulfill the terms of his or her covenant relationship with God, in other words, to keep Torah (Ez 36:26, 27). While we accept the work of the spirit within the community of faith to bless individuals with prophesy, teaching and healing for the strengthening of the community and as witnesses to the truth, we are not ‘charismatic’ or ‘pentecostal’ according to the definitions ascribed to such activities by their representative movements within Christianity. Recovering authentic prophetic and psiritual traditions should be one of the focal points of the community because it was one of the defining characteristics of the early community.
Sin and Atonement
Sin is defined as anything that inhibits our relationship with our Creator, that which keeps us from drawing close to him or draws us away. Sin can be defined either in moral terms, choices we make that are contrary to the will of God or in amoral terms, inadvertent contact with things that are the result of living in a world that is characterized by imperfection. This is in contrast to wickedness and rebellion which does not simply inhibit our relationship but precludes it.
Atonement (Kappar) or covering is the process by which the ordinary state of imperfection that exists in the material world covered and therefore elevated to a level in which it is acceptable in the presence of God and useful for his service. YHVH has decreed that blood is the means by which atonement will be made (Lev 17:11). This is accomplished through the temple service or ultimately, through the sacrifice of Messiah (Isa53, I Jn 4:10) the former being a shadow of the latter.
The Covenants and the People of God
A proper understanding of the covenants of God is essential to our relationship to Him and our fellow man. There are two basic kinds of covenants, covenants based on mutual friendship and respect and covernants established between a greater and a lessor enforced through law. The first covenants with Adam and Noach established the basic parameters of family, justice and a civilized society. All of mankind operates under the promises and stipulations of these covenants. It is under these covenants that man develops a relationship with His creator and learns how to properly interact with his fellow. All nations and individuals are judged according to the basics of righteousness and civility that are the basis of these covenants. It is this judgement that determines eternal destiny.
YHVH began a new program with the call of Avraham. He established a very specific covenant with Him. God made several basic promises to Avraham. He promised to multiply his descendants and that kings would come from him. That a great nation would arise from him and to that nation the land of Canaan would be given and finally, Avraham would be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth and God Himself would be His shield and reward Gen 12, 15, 17). At first, Avraham believed God and trusted him to do what He said (Gen 12). Then He demanded proof from YHVH that He was going to do what He said and YHVH walked between the pieces of the animals Avraham had sacrificed (Gen 15). Avraham demonstrated a lack of belief at this point through the incident with Hagar and as a result, God established a covenant no longer based on trust and friendship but on law with stipulations and consequences (Gen 17). It order to see those promises fulfilled, Avraham and his descendants had two requirements. First, participants in the covenant had to be physical descendants of Avraham and second, those physical descendants needed to be circumcised (Gen 17). Circumcision is the sign of this covenant with Avraham’s descendants.
When YHVH had brought about the fulfillment of His promise by redeeming the nation of Israel from bondage and directing them to the land, he made another covenant. Moshe was the mediator of this one. The basis of this covenant is what we know as the ‘ten commandments’ and the rest of the Torah that expounds upon them. We see the same pattern we did with Avraham. Furst, God meets with Israel on Sinai and gives them ten Words and some basic guidelines, promising to dwell among them. No blessings, no curses, it is a relationship of loving Father to Children who were supposed to grow up to maturity. Israel, first with the golden calf and later with repeated rebellion saw that covenant of frienship devolve into one in which they were ‘bribed’ with blessings and threatened with curses. This covenant was made with not only the children of Avraham but with the whole ‘mixed multitude’ that came out of Egypt. The ‘sojourner’ or ‘alien’, someone not descended from Avraham can participate in the promises of this covenant just as his physical descendants can. The promises are many but center around the presence of God, prosperity, security and deliverance. The sign of this covenant is Shabbat. Anyone who is faithful to this covenant can experience it’s blessings as part of the nation of Israel (Isa 56).
The prophet Jeremiah was given the vision of a new covenant, a covenant that was mediated by Messiah Yahushua and was, in reality, a reestablishment of the eternal covenant based on friendship and trust. The promises of this covenant were given to the houses of Israel and Judah. Like the Avrahamic and Mosaic covenants, they are very people specific. This covenant is primarily an internalization of the mosaic covenant. The Torah would now be written on the heart so it would be fulfilled and the result of this would be that everyone would have an intimate knowledge of YHVH. We have seen a partial implementation of this covenant that will be completed with the dawn of the Messianic era.
The Development of Community
The development of our community should always be at the top of out list of priorities. This is also our primary challenge. In general community ‘spirit’ has been on the decline in western civilization for decades. We live in an impersonal society where individuality is valued and anonymity is a way of life. And while it is difficult for individuals to learn to value community and develop a feeling of family connection within a physical group or congregation, to do so over great expanses of land and water where the only connections are through Internet, e-mail and the postal service it a truly formidable challenge. What needs to be emphasized is constant and regular communication between all parts of the community and the constant involvement in the running and growth of the community, especially from those who have risen to the challenges associated with establishing local congregations. The quick and reliable communication afforded by the Internet, low cost long distance and the ability to get together as a community for festivals or special events are the primary means (along with the postal service) by which these challenges can be met.
Because of the impersonal nature of e-mail (and even the telephone), the local congregations, personal contact with leadership and regular celebrations and conferences are essential and when such opportunities present themselves, they should not be missed. There is nothing that develops the feeling of intimate family that God desires for His people than face to face interaction. It is on that level that real communication happens, where needs are met, where true connectiveness happens. It is at this level, particularly at the local congregational level, that people are truly touched with the love of God operating through a person of faith. Because we must be much more than just a repository of God’s truth. We must be a community. Anyone can write a book or paper and put it on a shelf or on a web site, and while many of us have written important pieces, it is the personal touch that it meaningful to people. After all, God dictated a book to Moshe but found it necessary to come personally to His own, touching them in a unique and personal way. That is the example we need to follow.
In order to be successful in fostering this personal touch and connectiveness, a support structure needs to be developed to assist congregations in their development and growth, assist new congregations and to facilitate connectiveness between congregations and individuals all over the world. This support organization will have a well defined list of benefits and those who avail themselves of these benefits will also have clearly delineated responsibilities. A true community is one that shares ideas and resources in order to accomplish a goal. Our goal is to develop a real community, a recreation of that which existed in the first century, and to take the truth that Torah and Messiah should be united in the life of the person of faith to all the world. To do this, we need to support the work of scholars who will further define and defend our community and do whatever necessary to get the truth to as many people as we can. Literature needs to be developed and people need to be trained and sent to various locations. If we really want to ensure success, and by that I mean the replication of spiritually mature, Torah obedient, Messiah loving individuals and congregations that are going to fulfill the mission that God has for Remnant Israel, then we need to gladly sacrifice our time and money to the larger community. For a true community is one that not only shares the bonds of love and friendship but also has shared ideas, lifestyle and when necessary, resources. The development of a strong sense of community and community responsibility is essential to our success.
The question becomes how to do this on a practical level. How do we set up the community, both locally and on a larger scale because there is a unique challenge here and it is this. How to take people that are by nature, rather individualistic, who are responding to this great move of God, and develop a community rather than a movement. We have seen the disunity that results in a ‘movement’. The divergent views of faith and practice, the ambiguity that results from people from all kinds of backgrounds appropriating a label that has not been clearly defined. The challenge is to define the label in terms that are general enough not to be authoritarian yet specific enough to provide unity, community and some sense of standardization from which we can speak as one voice to both the Christian and Jewish communities.
The Beit Din
The International Beit Din of the Tzaddikim is a crucial part of the community’s success and, if done properly, will ensure we avoid the pitfalls of the Messianic Movement. Unlike Messianic Judaism, our community is not a ‘do it yourself’ Judaism. In Messianic Judaism, each individual or congregation adopts the mitzvot and traditions they find valuable or meaningful and ignore the rest. The results are very diverse and divergent beliefs and practices with each one ‘doing what is right in his own eyes’ although it will often be rationalized in Christian lingo about conviction or the ‘leading of the Spirit’. We can not be so disorganized if we are ever to be taken seriously by ourselves or anyone else.
Therefore the work of the Beit Din is crucial to the formation of a cohesive community. They will answer the questions posed about tradition earlier. They will respond to halachic concerns in our modern time that have not been adequately addressed by the other Judaisms. They will formulate a basic paradigm from which to understand the important topics of Scripture, faith and practice.
They must do so with several things in mind. First, they need to be true to written Torah above all else. We do not want to be condemned for setting aside the command of God for the sake of our tradition. Halacha must be consistent with Torah, Tenach and the teaching of the Messiah and His Talmidim. The Word of God must come first, no matter what.
Second is a healthy respect for and understanding of the traditions and halachic rulings as they have developed over the last three thousand years and have come down to us in the present age. Third, they need to be realistic. We need to look at our present day circumstances and fit our lives into Torah in a way that makes sense and enables us to perform the mitzvot accurately and consistently. That means we will have to make compromises with the modern life we live and and with things that we do not have the ability to control. We need to carefully balance the integrity of Torah with the realities of 21st century life outside Eretz Israel (for most of us).
Fourth, they must stick to the very basic issues and allow for individuals and communities to express themselves and their relationship with God in their particular situation while remaining under the umbrella of generally accepted halacha. They cannot seek to micro manage for that would only create resentment and the result would be an erosion of the authority they are seeking to establish. What they need to do is create general principles and halacha that the individual communities and their local beit dins can adapt to their own particular situations. This is all done within the boundaries of Torah, of course, and there need to be some well defined boundaries. But local communities must be given the freedom to develop and adapt tradition so it is meaningful to them and respond to situations that are unique to their environment. It would be beneficial to have a clearinghouse to catalogue the rulings from the local beit dins so we can all benefit from the wisdom they apply to their situations. You never know when it may happen in your community.
The Organizational Structure
Another way to foster the community is to give everyone a stake in the decision making, to set up, in a way, a representative democracy. If everyone is going to contribute resources to the community, everyone should have a say is how those resources are allocated. This is done by each congregational or affiliated organizational leader having a ‘vote’ in the allocation of those resources and input into developing plans and other organization structures to accomplish the goals of the community. God puts community as His top priority because it is only through true community that we can accomplish His purposes in this world. Each one of us has a piece of tile in God’s mosaic and when we contribute our piece we are contributing to the beautiful picture. Each one of us is an essential part of the ‘body’. We are all given a gift or talent to donate to the community and no one else can do our task like we can. If we do not give or we are not permitted to give the whole community suffers so we need to continually encourage everyone’s participation at every level.
The integrity of the Community
Finally the last basic issue we need to deal with is maintaining the integrity of the community. This is an essential thing because much of what is contained in Torah is there for that purpose. Israel’s mission, and ours by extension, is to be a light to all the world. We are to be salt, we are to be the consciences of the world. And we understand that God is not going to choose anyone else for the job. Therefore, He has everything, including his honor, staked on us. We have a very serious responsibility because when people see us, they are seeing God’s representatives here on earth. We are the priests of the world and as remnant Israel, we are the ones that make the whole holy. We are held to the highest standard and we need to hold one another to those standards. The integrity of the community is essential to our mission and will enable us to speak and operate as a true community.
What, specifically, am I talking about? I’m talking about each one of us and each one of those who claim to be Derekim out there being proper representatives of God and Judaism haDerek. Proper in character and knowledge and spirit. Let’s look at leadership first for that is where it all starts. If leadership is not united around common goals and ideas, there is no way that those whom God has placed under their care are going to generate a common bond and understanding with Derekim everywhere else.
The Beit Din
The unification of leadership is going to be around the Beit Din. Therefore, let’s start with them. The men (and possibly women) seated in this crucial body must truly be men beyond reproach. As a group, they are really speaking for God to the community. That is a very heavy responsibility and there can be no place given to ulterior motives, juvenile politics or hot heads. The prayerful and informed discussion engaged in to seek the mind of God for the community is a job for those who have spiritual maturity, a reputation for Torah faithfulness, impeccable character, a working knowledge of Scripture and tradition and an absolute commitment to the community as a whole. Their views and understanding which should have a relatively long and consistent track record, need to show agreement with the primary tenets of Judaism haDerek as they have been developed to this point. This means that the addition of members to the Beit Din either through congregational affiliation or as an independent scholar or organization, will be done only after careful consideration and evaluation. We are developing something new here and it will be successful to the extent the foundation on which it stands is strong and stable. That foundation is leadership and the basis of leadership and authority is the Beit Din. The work done and decisions made will determine the direction of the community. Therefore, their work needs to be done deliberately and with caution. And while there will be disagreements and not all the votes will be unanimous (although a ninety percent majority ensures unity and caution), all members must respect the body enough to abide by the decisions made and encourage those under their care to do so as well.
Which brings us to those who have leadership positions in local congregations who will affiliate with HaDerek. Affiliations should be accepted with care and those who seek affiliation should be evaluated by scriptural principles by those bodies they seek to be a part of. The community needs to be assured that these men and women are going to represent the Messiah honorably and consistently. They need to abide by the rulings of the Beit Din and be an example to those whom God has placed in their charge. They need to be knowledgeable enough to train others and have the temperament and maturity to do so. They need to be mature people who have developed their understanding of Torah and Messiah over the course of years, not weeks or months. They must have a good understanding of Judaism and should have been living a Torah obedient lifestyle consistently for some time. A system of training of both knowledge and character should be developed as soon as possible to ensure these outcomes. People of this caliber will be responsible representatives to the world and we should never have to look at one of our own and wish they didn’t carry our label.
The People Who Make Up The Tzaddikim
Which brings us finally to the people who make up all the local congregations. How do we establish a basic consensus of belief and understanding among a group of people from very varied backgrounds and who are, by nature, rather independently minded. This will be through the development of a process of education by which halachicly recognized Jews and Gentiles will develop a basic agreement of belief and practice and become integral parts of the community of remnant Israel. It will be a process of training in theology and practice that should last at least a few months during which the prospect will demonstrate his or her willingness to adopt a Torah observant lifestyle as determined by the Beit Din and the larger community of Israel and his or her commitment to the community by their allocation of time and resources. At the at the end of this time, the local Beit Din will evaluate the prospect and after that, the individual will be immersed, if they had not previously been so in the proper name of God and the Messiah. This process is essential for a couple of reasons. First, is the previously mentioned goal of creating a cohesive community based on common belief and practice. Second, it will protect the community from those who would appropriate our label without accepting our values, understanding and authority structures. The third is that it allows gentiles to become full participants in the life of the community because they will have the same basic knowledge, lifestyle and values as do observant halachic Jews. Finally, it is a witness to the larger community of Israel. By developing a recognition process that shows respect for their halacha, teaches people to place value on the same things Jewish people always have, and creating educated students of Torah who are filled with the Spirit of God and passionately observant, will will show ourselves to be true children of Avraham regardless of our birth.
The True Character or Authority
The secret to all of this is maintaining balance. This talk about authority may make some uncomfortable. This talk of standardization and consensus. But the consensus that I am talking about is the one that held the Jewish community together through most of their history. While they may have differed in some of their theology, no one questioned Torah as the way of life, their commitment to the community was impeccable and they all respected the authority of the leading rabbis to develop halachic understanding. They had developed a responsible authority that was respected and and avoided the authoritarian use of power. That is the balance between respecting the individuals relationship with God and his ability to be led by the Spirit and maintaining the integrity of the community and it’s standard according to the Word of God. It is the balance of respecting the ability of local communities to develop wisdom and understanding in their particular situation while maintaining a basic understanding of faith that creates a feeling of community between congregations all over the world. It is the balance between acceptance of an individual’s rate of growth in faith while never lowering the expectations God has of every redeemed person. If we follow such guidelines with maturity and work them out with council among godly men and women, we will develop a vibrant community of individuals who will hold to the highest standards of Scripture, allow the spirit free reign in their lives and are committed to their fellow believers and Jews all over the world.
Finally, something needs to be made clear. What has been proposed is not a blueprint for any kind of exclusive group. We can make no final judgements about any individual’s personal relationship with God or how He will deal with them in the final judgement. While this is an attempt to recreate as accurately as possible the first century community of those who followed Messiah, this community will not be the only one making the attempt, and there are individuals all over the world God is calling to this truth who may not or will not choose to identify with it. They are still brothers and sisters as is anyone who loves Messiah and demonstrates that love through faithfulness to the Torah of Moshe. So while we are developing a community with authority and standards, privileges and responsibilities, patterned after the community of Israel and Messiah found in the Scriptures, it will never be said that only those in this community are God’s only people, the only ones in the world to come or the only ones reigning with Messiah. Those judgments are left only to God.
The opportunity that is before us is enormous and fraught with peril. God is doing a great and awesome work all over the world in preparation for Messiah’s return. He is bringing Jews and Gentiles to an understanding of redemption that includes both Torah and Mashiyakh. The Church will not hear of Torah, The Jews will not look at Mashiyakh and Messianic Judaism will not accept Gentiles. These people whom God has called to Torah and Messiah need someplace to belong because they know community is essential in God’s plan. We can be that community if we are willing to make it happen. If we are willing to put our time, energy and money into this community we call the Kehillot HaDerek nothing will be out of our reach. If we take the time and take what we are doing seriously, we will build a beautiful work. Because truth is our foundation and because as we build on and live that truth the Spirit of God will do things with us and through us that have not been seen since the first decades of the Yerushalyim community.
Rav Mikha'el ben Avraham
What is the Next Step?