Stop Calling Judaism “Legalistic”

These are the laws, rulings and teachings that God gave to the people of Israel on Mount Sinai through Moses.

Leviticus c26

For nearly two thousand years, the Jewish rabbis have been telling a brash and ingenious story. The story—called a midrash—expounds upon the biblical story found in the book of Numbers where Moses overlooked the promised land from atop a mountain. A good way to think of midrash is it’s like fan fiction, but for the Bible.

In this story, Moses sees God decorating some of the Hebrew letters in a scroll of the Torah. Apparently the decorative choices are important. Some letters are adorned with various crowns and thorns, but others aren’t. And Moses wants to know the meaning behind these crowns and thorns.

Importantly, when this story was first told, Rabbi Akiva and subsequent rabbis had been in the process of remaking Judaism after Rome had destroyed its temple in Jerusalem. Because so much Jewish law and identity as described in the Bible assumes the existence of a temple, the temple’s destruction put Judaism—let alone its faithful adherents— in existential crisis. The temple was foundational to everything, and if Judaism was to survive nothing short of remaking the ground would do.

Fortunately, Judaism was ready. Built into the very mechanisms of Judaism’s ritual and repetition were also mechanisms for dynamic and liberal change. This work required debate, creativity, and inspiration. And to argue what and how and why certain changes needed to be made, Rabbi Akiva and other rabbis took liberty to draw inspiration from anywhere.

Including how certain Hebrew letters in the words of the Torah were traditionally decorated with crowns and thorns (because who would ever be interested in a crown and thorns placed over a word?)

As the story goes, Moses asks God why he doesn’t just explain the meaning of the decorations to him right then and there, and God responds, “A person called Akiva will appear a few generations from now, and he will explain each thorn on these letters and generate mountains of laws from them.” Moses asks to see him, so God instructs Moses to “walk backward.” In a bit of literary flourish, Moses walks backward . . . and into the future.

(You thought Back to the Future was just an 80s movie, didn’t you?)

There, he finds himself positioned to view a classroom in which Rabbi Akiva is teaching his students the law of Moses. What’s funny about the scene is that as the rabbi argues a point about the law in front of the class, Moses—Israel’s lawgiver—has no clue what he is talking about. He even becomes distressed, thinking he must have missed something while up on Mount Sinai. But when a student in the classroom asks Akiva how he arrived at the point he was advancing, he replies that God had given Moses this law on Mount Sinai, and Moses, we are told, finds great comfort in this answer.

I share this endearing and whimsical story because every time I’m forced to be in a place and someone in that place is given a captive audience and that person uses that place to teach that captive audience about the Old Testament and when they talk about the Old Testament they carelessly fling around Judaism as legalistic and stuck in tradition,







I could have shared many other of rabbinic Judaism’s great midrashic tales, but I chose the story about time-traveling Moses because it goes against the grain of so many of fundamentalist Christianity’s most deeply held assumptions. Contrary to most modern Christian thought, Judaism is a religion of audacious innovation, liberal use of the Bible, and willingness to evolve from what would seem to be a text’s “original intent.” I think this story captures the spirit of that.

Of course Judaism has rules.

Lots of rules.

And rituals.

And debates about its rules.

And about its rituals.

But fundamentalist Christianity adds a poison to these otherwise neutral qualities. Jewish legalism is assumed to be stuck looking backward. It is assumed to be caught up in inflexible standards that, once given, never change. Where there are problems, it is assumed that the problem lies in straying from something from long ago. I hope to convey how radically different Judaism is to these irresponsible caricatures.

For example, the text of the book of Deuteronomy commands that a rebellious child be stoned—no questions asked, no exceptions given. And because, ironically, fundamentalist Christianity is the very thing that it projects onto Judaism, such people will speak real words and those words will actually communicate that at one time it was God’s plan to kill children. That is in contrast to the rabbis. Despite the command being perfectly clear to any neutral reader, the rabbis categorically denied that God permitted this practice. Instead, they explained that the reason God placed that command in the Torah was . . . wait for it . . . to teach people how to interpret the Torah well so as to prevent it from ever happening.

Notice the hilarious degree of audacity (or if you will, chutzpah). But also notice the method. The rabbis never censored the Bible. They never struck the command out of the Bible. They just worked the Bible and worked tradition in whatever way was required to produce a just outcome. Because for all the Judaic innovation that has happened over the centuries, all Judaic innovation begins with the text of the Bible. Remember, for Moses to go forward, he first had to go backward.

But forward they went, nevertheless.

The rabbis claimed that the Bible gave them the authority to interpret, amplify, modify and even occasionally abrogate parts of the Torah. Ever since the canon of the Old Testament closed, Judaism has evolved with the times to such an extent that the Old Testament text is a very bad way to understand Judaism. Many people smarter than me argue that this was true even before the New Testament was written.

You may be wondering what in the world—let alone the Bible—the rabbis latched onto in order to claim this.

Go back to the verse I quoted at the top. In the book of Leviticus, the text says that God gave the law to Moses on Mount Sinai, and the rabbis paid special attention to that word “gave.” If God had given the law of Moses as a gift, the law was no longer God’s; it was humankind’s. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a gift. And since it was humankind’s, humankind had the authority to do what it wanted with it.

In another story, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua are in a rabbinic academy debating a point of the law, and all the rabbis disagree with Rabbi Eliezer. Then the voice of God enters the room and tells everyone that actually only Rabbi Eliezer has interpreted the law correctly. However—and, again, contrary to the reflexes of each and every fundamentalist Christian—the story says that the rabbis basically tell God to butt out and go back to Heaven. They even quote to God Deuteronomy c30 v12-14, which says that the Torah is not in Heaven, but is on the Earth.

Perhaps the best way to put it comes in the styling of a certain Rabbi you may have heard of—the law was made for humankind, not humankind for the law.

As someone who grew up zealous for only the most fundamentalist version of Christianity you could imagine, everything I just shared remains shocking to me. I know it in my head, but I struggle to believe it in my heart. Real Judaism and the straw version of Judaism I was taught are not close. As one can see from these stories, God has a high view of humankind and its capacity for ruling the world.

(You also get this from the Beatitudes).

But what I read on the Facebook walls and Instagram stories of people who grew up like I did are expressions humanity’s inability to govern ourselves. We are fallen and need an unchanging standard because our emotions and feelings will otherwise get the better of us. And I can already hear the pushback. If this is what Judaism is like, thinks the fundamentalist, then clearly this is what Jesus came down to Earth to correct.

I disagree.

First, Judaism was creating midrash long before the New Testament was written, and the people who wrote the New Testament used lots of it. The New Testament is full of rabbinic inventions that are not found in the Old Testament. I agree with those people who say that the Old Testament is a bad way of understanding the Judaism that is presented in the New Testament. You need to be aware of Judaism’s innovations to read the New Testament well.

Second, the New Testament writers engaged in some wild midrash themselves. They were perfectly willing to play fast and loose with the original intent Old Testament text if it furthered the point they were advancing. Notice the way Matthew c2 v14-15 works a magic trick on Hosea c11 v1. I’ve written a lot on this topic. Click anywhere on this blog and I think you’ll see that Matthew was not a one-and-done phenomenon.

Finally—and this is important—the New Testament writers went to great lengths to explain that Rabbi Jesus gave the church the same liberal authority that the rabbis had claimed. His statement “I’m giving you the keys to the kingdom. Whatever you bind on Earth is bound in Heaven and whatever you loose on Earth is loosed in Heaven,” is but one example of this. Jesus never intended that the Bible would stand for anything less than broad human flourishing.

Yet the modern churchgoer equates worship of God with perfect fidelity to the Bible. I think that’s wrong—specifically, I think it trades worship of God for worship of a text—but that is an honest position you can take. However, if that is your position, you must stop calling Judaism “legalistic.”

God Loves and Accepts the LGBT: Part 4

“The School of Shammai binds, but the school of Hillel looses.” That this quote could mean so much to the early disciple of Jesus but nothing to the modern churchgoer is symptomatic of a massive problem.

Two weeks ago I wrote about the Jewish vocation—its driving motivation that found voice in, of all places, slavery in Babylon. I started there because if your assumptions about Judaism are wrong, your ideas of what Jesus fulfilled when he established his kingdom by dying on a Roman cross will correspondingly have little in common with the ideas of the Jews who wrote the New Testament.

And this is not a hypothetical problem.

The Bible to modern churchgoers is the “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” God created a moral code. Life in Eden depended on keeping it perfectly, but failure lead to death. The humans’ failure to keep the moral code in the garden was repeated under the more sophisticated moral code of the Torah. The failure in either case resulted in humans being destined for Hell rather than Heaven. Finally, however, Jesus obeyed God’s moral law perfectly and in his death paid the penalty for the rest of humanity. In the end, those who believe in Jesus go to Heaven and not Hell. Those going to Heaven are collectively “the church,” or its synonym, “the kingdom.”

This articulation of the Bible is both common and unbiblical—frankly, a travesty.

The Apostle Paul wrote that “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.” But the thing from which modern churchgoers argue that Jesus saved us is a problem that no writer of Paul’s scriptures ever had in mind. To the contrary, Paul’s scriptures from start to finish articulated the need to be saved from the injustice wrought by violent and greedy military superpowers. And when you read the Gospels from the perspective of those whose scriptures were born of slavery in Babylon, you start to see the real saving work of Jesus Christ.

From the very first lines of the Gospel of Mark, which was written right after Rome destroyed Jerusalem—under virtually the exact circumstances as Babylon had done six centuries earlier—you see the New Testament continue on the trajectory that began in the first lines of Genesis:

The beginning of the Gospel about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”

This short passage is dynamite.

First, the Roman Empire announced Gospels (literally “Gospels”) as propaganda devices throughout the empire after they conquered a new territory or put down a rebellion somewhere. Gospels were intended to stir the patriotic passions of those who worshipped the Caesars and instill fear in those who didn’t. So, when the ragtag followers of Rabbi Yeshua stole that word from the empire, they demonstrated the same kind of rebelliousness that the writer of the creation poem in Genesis displayed when he or she stole the creation poem from the Babylonian empire.

In other words, the very first sentence of the very first written Gospel is an act of rebellion.

And there’s more. The sentence also works to identify Yeshua as the Messiah. I’ll get to that word in detail shortly, but, before I do, notice how the writer connects the purpose of the Messiah to the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah. The passage that Mark quoted is a rejoicing of the Israelites’ journey back to Israel after their slavery in Babylon. The long journey from Babylon back to Israel would ordinarily take a circular route around the Arabian desert, but the writer’s poetic excitement to get back to Israel imagined a straight highway back to the promised land. Mark repurposed that language to speak to his first readers—a people who, like the first readers of Isaiah, had just witnessed the great empire of its day destroy their whole city.

Mark’s Gospel was intended to connect the problems his readers were enduring to the same problems endured by the people who first heard Isaiah’s hopeful message.

While the Bible is the journey of the Jewish people as they struggled with how to overcome the problem of empire, I confess that Jesus was the crazy and scandalous solution to that problem. Jesus, you could say, was the end of that journey.

We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

I Corinthians c1 v23

Because it turns out that the thing Jesus did to fulfill the Jewish vocation—in other words, what Jesus did to solve the problem of empire—was to willingly endure the full brunt of its most cruel instrument of fear, torture, and intimidation—the Roman cross. Jesus, without fighting back, took on the full power of the Roman Empire . . . and on the third day won.

How did Jesus disarm the superpower? How did he solve the Jewish problem? How did he fulfill the law and prophets?

Only in the most counterintuitive way possible.

By not fighting back.

By forgiving the sins of both the empire and the rebels.

By dying the death of a criminal.

By ending the cycle and recycled cycle of vengeance.

By exposing the whole system for the lie that it was.

Paul wrote this explicitly.

“And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

Colossians c2 v15

I don’t care who you are or what your religious background is, this is good stuff. This is the stuff that attracted the masses to Jesus.

And I would continue writing on this subject—and you’ll have to forgive me for skimping on it—but we have so much more to cover.

(Also, I wrote this twelve-part series (!) on it already).

The Kingdom

All said, we now can talk about “the Kingdom” and “the Messiah” in a way that is at least mildly relevant to the Bible.

Modern churchgoers talk about the Kingdom all the time. Working for the Kingdom. Building the Kingdom. Growing the kingdom. Being Kingdom people. Of course, every time we talk about the Kingdom, we mostly mean something like “the people who won’t be going to Hell when they die.”

Like everything else I talk about, the things the New Testament writers wrote when they wrote about the Kingdom cannot be divorced from what the Old Testament writers wrote when they also did. The idea started in the Old Testament, but really took off in the centuries between the testaments. So too did the idea of the Messiah, which is really the corresponding part of the same idea.

The Hebrew word, Meshiahk, literally means “anointed one,” which translates fine linguistically but not culturally. This is because the word is associated with the Israelite’s unique coronation ceremony. The Israelites didn’t coronate their kings with crowns, but instead anointed them in oil. Thus, the description and picture of the “Messianic Age” in some scriptures and the descriptions and pictures of the kingdom in others are not separate ideas, but one incredibly simple and incredibly complicated idea.

And here’s what it is.

I’ve been talking about the Jewish religion and its vocation now for a long time. The Kingdom, then, was simply the world in which the problems that the Jewish religion took on were actually solved. It was the world in which the Jewish vocation had reached its fulfillment. It was salvation. Of course, various writers employed all kinds of rich and complex literary work to describe it. But that was it. It was the world that had been fully formed in the image of God.

That Jesus solved the problem at the heart of the Jewish vocation is reflected all throughout the New Testament.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

Matthew c5 v17

“For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

Colossians c1 v19-20

This, then, is how you should pray: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Matthew c6 v9-10

The book you are reading that we call the Bible is the story that begins with the problem of greedy and violent empire, continues with the Jewish vocation to make a new world free from that and its evolving understanding of how to get to that world, and finishes with Jesus who fulfilled the Jewish vocation and gave us the Kingdom.

Again, the Kingdom and the fulfillment of the Jewish vocation is the world in which people rule the world in the image of God rather than being ruled by the things of the world.

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Thus says the Lord,
the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
the slave of rulers,
“Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

Isaiah c49

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Isaiah c60

When the Bible speaks about his people being ruled by the things of the world, rather than ruling it in his image, the word it uses is “idolatry.” Perhaps then, a better way of thinking about Jesus’s death on the cross was Jesus’s refusal to fight the empire with the weapons of the empire—and so be ruled by them.

On the cross, what we see is the complete revelation of Jesus giving back to Caesar that which was Caesar’s.

Modern Moves

Just because we confess that Jesus answered the vexing question at the heart of the Jewish vocation and brought about the kingdom age does not mean that the work that began with the Jews is all done. Recall how describing the Kingdom well required us to go back deep into the Jewish religion. Similarly, the way Jesus described what his disciples do in the Kingdom also requires us to go back to Judaism—specifically rabbinic Judaism. Last week’s installment showed some of the Bible’s shifting and moving ideas of how to bring about the Jewish dream of the Kingdom.

As you’ll soon observe, when we talk about modern-day Kingdom work, even as articulated in the New Testament, those Old Testament moves become intensely relevant.

In the period between the testaments, another global empire came to dominate Israel, Greece. In that time was formed the Pharisee and Sadducee parties. Both parties hated foreign domination, but, again, they were split over various issues about the Jewish vocation and the Kingdom. The Sadducees believed that bringing about the Kingdom simply required priestly adherence to the temple regulations found in Leviticus (and the fact that the temple was destroyed in 70 AD is why there aren’t still Sadducees). It was an idea rooted in part in an admirable humility that humans depend on God to fight their battles, but also in a primitive belief that the God of the cosmos was moved to favor when valuable things were killed on altars. The Sadducees read the Bible conservatively and interpreted the law strictly. The Pharisees, on the other hand, interpreted the law much more loosely. Also, despite the their belief that they hated the Greeks and their pagan ideas, they nevertheless adopted many of the most enduring ideas. They borrowed from Plato the ideas of eternal life and resurrection. They described God in terms familiar to anyone who had read Plato’s allegory of the cave. And, in the same way that Greek philosophers made disciples and questioned them through the socratic method, the Pharisees believed that the broader Israelite population needed to be so discipled in order to understand and properly follow the Hebrew Bible. This they believed was what was needed to bring about as they called it: “the Age to Come.”

The Pharisees’ democratic approach to Judaism distinguished them from the Sadducees, who believed that if the priests in the temple correctly did their work, all would be fine. Consequently, the Sadducees did not have rabbis. When the New Testament refers to the “chief priests” and “teachers of the law,” the chief priests are the Sadducees and the teachers of the law are the Pharisees.

The broad diversity of thought within rabbinic (Pharisaic) Judaism is directly relevant to the modern work of the Kingdom and, to put it crudely, what is right and wrong. While the rabbis were all working towards the kingdom, they too were constantly arguing about how to interpret the law that determined what conduct was acceptable in the kingdom. We know this because we have their debates.

When rabbis taught about how they interpreted the Torah, they often spoke in terms of what was permitted and what was not permitted. When something was not permitted, the rabbis said it was “bound,” but if something was permitted, they called it “loosed.” When the long list of a rabbi’s bound things and loosed things was compiled, that list was called that rabbi’s “yoke.” When people spoke about different schools of Jewish thought among the rabbis, the vocabulary they used was yokes.

This gets me to Hillel and Shammai.

In Jesus’s day, Hillel and Shammai were the leaders of the two most well-known schools of Jewish thought. Shammai generally interpreted the Torah conservatively, and Hillel generally interpreted the Torah liberally. In fact, the common saying about their differences was “The school of Shammai binds, but the school of Hillel loosens.” To the confoundment of most modern Christians, history records the positions of Hillel as having consistently won out over Shammai. Also interestingly, Jesus weighed in numerous times on specific issues of Jewish law that Hillel and Shammai debated. When he did, he usually either sided with Hillel’s positions or took them in even more liberal directions.

Think about that. The fact that the Pharisees were less conservative than the Sadducees, the fact that Hillel was less conservative of the schools of the Pharisees, and the fact that Jesus was less conservative than Hillel—all of this was the subtext behind Jesus’s words when he told his disciples: “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Yes, it was.

But here’s where I’m going with it all. The discussion of the morality of LGBT relationships is really the discussion of rabbinic authority. If you understand rabbinic authority, the specific issue really kind of quiets down.

Ordinarily, when a disciple trained under a rabbi, the purpose was to master that rabbi’s yoke so they could become a rabbi themselves and make new disciples under that yoke. However, every once in a while, a rabbi would reach such intellectual stature and such a command of the text, that they would be given authority (the Hebrew word for authority is “shmekhah“) to make new interpretations of how to follow the commands of the Torah. This is what Hillel and Shammai exercised.

Not only did Rabbinic authority extend to interpreting the Torah in fresh ways, but the Rabbis even exercised a divine right to suspend parts of the Torah. For example, when a child acted rebelliously against their parents, the Torah commanded that the parents stone the offending child. This command is grotesque, and the rabbis apparently agreed. Because in all seriousness, they concluded that the reason God put that command in the Torah was so that his people would have to figure out how to interpret it in a way that prevented it from ever being applied.

Haha, yes, those primitive “legalistic Pharisees” said that.

This gets me back to Rabbi Yeshua.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”

“Rabbi, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. The law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” . . . . “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with shmekha!”

When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had shmekha [like Hillel and Shammai], and not as their teachers of the law.

Of course, new understandings of how to be faithful to the commands of God implicated all kinds of big considerations. Not least of them was who would be in the “Kingdom of God.” Remember, that was what this was all about. To decide what kind of conduct was acceptable in the kingdom was not substantively different than to decide who would be in the kingdom. Rabbis with schmekhah were said then to be given the “keys to the kingdom.”

Most of you probably have little problem with Jesus exercising rabbinic authority. After all, if Jesus is Lord, then Jesus is Lord over the law. “No prob,” you say.

But I tell you all of this—and this is the most important point of this whole series—because Jesus gave his disciples rabbinic authority:

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Matthew c16

(And if you don’t want to just take my word for it, you can read what the Jews themselves say right here).

Lest the point might be missed, Jesus even doubled down.

In Matthew c18, he gave his disciples a well-known command. When someone sins, first go to that person privately and talk about it. If they continue their wrongdoing, Jesus said to bring a witness and have the conversation privately a second time. Only if they continue their wrongdoing then are they to be removed from the fellowship. You know this teaching if you’ve been in the church for any length of time. But what Jesus said immediately next is usually skipped over.

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.

In other words, the task in the Kingdom Age of defining sin according to Jesus’s is not God’s, but ours. Jesus gave his disciples the authority to interpret his teaching. Jesus gave his disciples the authority to disagree about how to interpret his teaching. Jesus gave his disciples the authority to decide who would be in the kingdom. Jesus gave his disciples the authority to engage in moves.

It’s almost as if Jesus answered the long mystery of who would be in the Kingdom with a kind of wink. As if to say, “Whoever you allow in the kingdom, that’s who will be in it!

Jesus taught and demonstrated how to bring about the kingdom that fulfilled the Jewish vocation, but the task of deciding how to obey Jesus’s commands requires a lot of interpretive work. You don’t get to make these judgments flippantly. Really, as you can see in the text above, these judgments should be made in community. And that gets us, finally, to the Apostle Paul.

Paul was one of the first interpreters of how to obey Jesus’s commands in the Kingdom.

Part 5