Shalom my sisters and brothers,
I regularly remind everyone that the ethics, outlook and mindset contained in the Prophet Yeshua`’s teachings, give us the emphases and focus of our faith as Talmidis. How we approach Torah – how we interpret it and how we apply it – is inspired by the spirit in which Yeshua` himself applied Torah. Talmidaism is therefore the application of Torah with compassion and mercy.
When we read the commandments in Torah, a compassionate person will look for a compassionate way of applying them, and a heartless person will look for the easiest or literal way to apply them. Therefore, one’s application of Torah reveals the true heart within you – a warm compassionate heart, or a cold ruthless heart.
The books of the Prophets, and the biblical Wisdom literature, tell us with what mindset we are to apply Torah. We cannot therefore read Torah alone; we must also bear in mind the exhortations of the Hebrew prophets and the ancient Israelite Sages. Yeshua`’s message of compassion, mercy and forgiveness was therefore not a new message; he was reiterating the message of all the Hebrew prophets and Sages who came before him. We could even say that Yeshua`’s gospel was a condensed version of the books of the Hebrew Bible outside of the Torah, giving us the true mindset with which to apply God’s Torah.
Before I go any further, I need to explain how Talmidis view scripture. I personally don’t know any Talmidis who view scripture as perfect and infallible, since this makes Scripture equal to God, and is therefore a form of idolatry. Through my own studies, I have personally come to the conclusion that the Hebrew Bible evolved over time, and was edited into its present form over the course of centuries, passing through the hands of many editors.
Did Yeshua overturn Torah?
There are some who say that Yeshua overturned Torah. However, as a Yahwist Israelite who has studied Yeshua`’s words from a non-Paullist perspective, I have to say that there was something more subtle going on.
In Rabbinic Judaism, ritual and ethical commandments both have equal weight and importance. However, according to the Prophets, if you carry out all the ritual commandments, and yet you are still heartless and ruthless, oppressing the poor, deceiving the innocent, and engaging in fraudulent business practices, then any custom or ritual you do carry out is worthless (cf Hos 6:6, Ezek 18:7-9). It is therefore the intent of the heart that matters more than the exactitude with which a ritual is carried out – this is from the prophetic tradition of Israel, and is not unique to Yeshua. As God declared through the prophet Hosea, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ (Hos 6:6)
Torah often tells us what to do as Jews – the legal and ritual framework – but it doesn’t go into detail to describe the mindset with which we are to do these things. We are instructed to carry out Torah ‘with all our heart and all our soul (Dt 26:16), and more significantly, we do this by seeking God (Dt 4:29) and loving God (Dt 6:5) in the same manner. I believe that Yeshua took to heart these latter two instructions in his application of Torah, and expanded on them.
Yeshua’s teachings extended the application of Torah to cover the intent of the heart and the inclination of the soul. For example,
124. 1Yeshua` said, ‘The commandment was given to our ancestors, “You shall not commit murder”; and whoever commits murder will be liable to judgement. 2But let me just say to you, that everyone who’s angry with their neighbour shall be liable to judgement – 3whoever says to their neighbour, “Worthless moron!” shall be answerable to the Great Council, and whoever says, “Fool!” shall be cast into the outer darkness!’
The written Torah applies to the actual act of murder itself, but Yeshua`’s teaching was implying that there is a mindset – a train of psychological logic – that leads a person to murder. To prevent this, Yeshua favoured extending the remit of Torah to the self-regulation of the mind. There is often a psychological grey area before one reaches the point where one could actually commit murder, and Yeshua seemed to favour staying away even from this grey area. So, for example, if you are someone who enjoys playing pranks on people, in effect you are someone who enjoys seeing the misfortune of others. This is only a small step from enjoying seeing someone getting hurt, which is a small step from enjoying hurting someone yourself, which in turn is a small step from having no compunction about doing someone actual physical harm.
The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, which has Ebionite influence, contains warnings and numerous examples of these slippery slopes, and they all reflect Yeshua`’s concern that we should create this ‘fence of the mind’. In order to do a cruel or wicked thing, the mindset has to be there which has prepared that person to carry out the sin. Therefore we submit ourselves to the discipline of the mind, so that when placed in a difficult situation, we do not automatically go for the harmful option, but rather seek a different, non-violent method of solving problems.
The Harsh Commandments
There are a number of crimes in Torah which ordain the death penalty. For example, we are told that someone who breaks the Sabbath is to be put to death (Num 15:35). However, numerous times throughout the Bible we are told that God is merciful. As a result, the death penalty for religious infractions was rarely carried out. It was assumed that these infractions were investigated, witnesses questioned, and so on; the death penalty was not blithely inflicted on wrongdoers.
Another example is Dt 21:18-21, which covers dealing with a son who is regularly insubordinate. Israelite culture engenders respect for both father and mother – that a child learns its wisdom from both, and is disciplined by both. These verses apparently deal with a child who is persistently unruly and incorrigible – that he should be put to death.
As with other instances which say, “Thus you shall sweep out evil from your midst; all Israel will hear and be afraid”, this is meant to be a deterrent, rather than actually be carried out (in legal terms, this is known as lege in terrorem – a law designed to instil fear rather than one to be practiced). As with the sentence of slaughtering an entire town that has turned away from Yahveh, this is another case of a law where there is no record of anyone ever actually carrying this out. The law is instead meant to impress upon us the seriousness of repeatedly disobeying and defying one’s parents.
Yeshua` taught us, ‘Be merciful, just as your Father in heaven is merciful’ (SY 34:1), and James taught us that ‘Mercy triumphs over judgment’ (Ig.Yq. 3:10). Torah tells us that Yahveh our God is abundant in mercy (Num 14:18), and that God’s mercy is great (Num 14:19). The psalms tell us of the depth and enormity of God’s mercy (Ps 36:5-10). Through the Prophets, we learn how much God loves mercy: “I am Yahveh who exercises mercy, justice, and righteousness on the earth; for I delight in these things” (Jer 9:24). The merciful love of our heavenly Father is abundantly clear in the books of the Hebrew Bible; others might seek to shame our faith by saying that the God of the Hebrew Bible is a God of anger and wrath, but if you actually read the books of the Hebrew Bible (and not just take bits and pieces of it), you see that God’s discipline is repeatedly tempered by mercy and forgiveness, and this is the God that Yeshua sought to remind us of. Yeshua did not give us a new God; Yeshua reminded us of the God that judgmental religious people too often forget is already there.
God’s concern for the poor and vulnerable
Anyone who has read the whole of Torah, will be well aware of God’s concern for the poor and the vulnerable of society (‘the poor, the widow, the fatherless and the foreigner resident among you’). There are many laws in Torah that were designed to lessen the impact of economic hardship on those who were particularly susceptible to the deprivations of poverty. Therefore, one cannot call oneself a son or daughter of Yahveh, or claim to follow God’s ways, if you have no compassion for those who struggle to meet their daily needs.
In Yeshua`’s day, many of the laws designed to help the poor – such as the remittance of debt during the Sabbatical year – were being ignored. This is why Yeshua had such a strong ministry to the poor, and why forgiveness of debt was such an important part of his message. Right-wing religious fundamentalists decry the cause of social justice and look upon it with scorn, but if you have no interest in social justice, or in righting the inequalities and unfairness in human society, then effectively you are guilty of doing nothing that Yeshua said: “Why do you call me Master, and yet do nothing that I say?”
Yeshua`’s teaching gives us the mindset with which we are to apply Torah: with compassion, justice, mercy and forgiveness. He was continuing the message proclaimed by all the Hebrew prophets who came before him – his message was not new; it was a message that was too often ignored in his day, and so God called him to remind his fellow Jews that the God who gave us Torah was a God who was abundant in mercy and compassion – that Yahveh, the God of the Hebrew Bible, was not solely a God of indignation and discipline, but also a God of boundless love and forgiveness.