When you read through the Torah, do you have difficulty determining what commandments can actually be followed today in the Twenty-First Century? When you look at various instructions to Ancient Israel, how are you supposed to consider their importance as a modern person? Are there actually commandments that appear in the Torah, which are only situational to persons who lived in the Ancient Near East?
It is sad to say this, but the Jewish Synagogue—which does not acknowledge Yeshua as the Messiah—often has a better handle on what commandments in the Torah can and cannot be followed today than much of today’s Messianic community does. The very question of halachah, meaning “the way to walk” in the Jewish theological tradition, arose precisely because people found themselves in circumstances and situations to which the Torah did not directly apply. In order to afford the Torah the authority that it has for God’s people, Jewish innovation had to step in and determine which commandments could be followed in the new circumstances and what could actually be done. Most of these new circumstances included living in the Diaspora, and how changes in both technology and economy affected the place or relevance of various commandments. While God’s ethical and moral standards remained constant, as did His instructions on what were to make Israel a unique people, a good feature of the Rabbinic tradition is its testimony to the fact that not all of the commandments are applicable for today. And that is without recognizing Yeshua as the Messiah who atoned for the world.
The fact that halachah has to be something that adapts to the times is clear within the Biblical period. The Torah specifically commands that Passover was to be celebrated in the place of the Lord’s choosing (Deuteronomy 16:16), that place being Jerusalem. And indeed, we have adequate Biblical testimony that many people did expel the effort to go to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, including Yeshua’s own family (Luke 2:41-43). Yet Acts 20:6 indicates that the Apostle Paul commemorated the Passover in Philippi. Would this have been considered a legitimate Passover celebration according to the Torah? If one has a strict black-and-white reading of the text—no. If one sits firmly within the Jewish theological halachah—yes. It was one thing for Yeshua’s family to travel to and from Galilee to Jerusalem to commemorate the Passover. But for Jews living as far east as Persia, or as far west as Belgica in the First Century, it would have just been impossible to go to Jerusalem for all three of the pilgrimage feasts. Accommodations had to be made, and the local synagogue would undoubtedly be a place of gathering for prayer and praise during this time for those who could not make the long journey. Recognizing that God is merciful to His people in those areas where they are unable to perfectly follow His Law is also important.
Understanding an historical reality like this is only part of the difficulties that today’s Messianics face when it comes to the commandments of the Torah and their applicability. Another part comes in the form of how the Torah’s commandments are specifically classified. The Reformed Christian tradition has often subdivided the Pentateuchal ordinances between moral, civil, and ceremonial, with the latter two no longer being applicable because of Yeshua’s sacrifice. While rightfully believing that the Torah’s moral or ethical statutes can never be revoked and were upheld by Yeshua and the Apostles, this threefold division is rather artificial, as a reading of the Torah itself indicates a much more organic division as commandments applying to males, females, children, priests, farmers, businesspersons, married, unmarried, etc. are to be followed by those sectors of society. Some commandments apply to all, and then other commandments apply to only certain people.
Even when we recognize these much more natural divisions among the Torah mitzvot, there has not been a great deal of Messianic engagement with what scholars often refer to as apodictic or casuistic laws.
Torah commandments that would be considered apodictic are most often those with some kind of “Thou shalt not…” attached to them, indicating that they are immutable principles that cannot, at least easily, be amended or revoked. They concern things that remain constant for the sake of God’s people and in making them holy and set-apart. The Ten Commandments are clearly in this category, as are many other ordinances that can easily be followed today with a minimum of difficulties. Other than the ethical and moral ordinances of the Pentateuch, which many Christians throughout history have always held dear, they include many of the things that have constituted Jewish identity over the centuries, and which bear great significance to today’s Messianic people as well.
In contrast to this, casuistic laws or case laws include those things which clearly have some kind of timestamp on them. An excellent example of this is Deuteronomy 23:23, which says “No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the LORD; none of their descendants, even to the tenth generation, shall ever enter the assembly of the LORD” (NASU), indicating that the eleventh generation could very well enter in. However, there are other casuistic types of commandments in the Torah that are not as easily classified as such. They have to be examined on a case-by-case basis, and the interpreter who holds to the continued validity of the Torah has to ask if such commandments only concerned an ancient setting, economy, and technology level—certainly teaching us things about God’s character and Ancient Israel’s uniqueness—or whether they apply to all cultural settings and all generations.
Reasoning through Torah commandments and those that are applicable or non-applicable will be very difficult for varied sectors of today’s Messianic movement. The Apostle Paul wrote Timothy, “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly” (1 Timothy 1:8, NIV). Learning how to do this will be a challenge for some of today’s Messianics as we weigh: (1) the impact and changes inaugurated by Yeshua’s atoning sacrifice, (2) the role of halachah in the Jewish theological tradition, and (3) whether a Torah ordinance is apodictic or casuistic. A great deal of the controversy, if not experienced now then certainly to be experienced in the future, regarding Torah observance, will not be focused around things like Shabbat, memorializing the appointed times, or kashrut. A great deal of the controversy surrounding Torah observance will regard those things in the Torah that directly concern the Ancient Near Eastern world in which Moses’ Teaching was originally given to Israel. How we deal with those things in our Twenty-First Century world could very well determine how our faith community rises or falls, at least in the short term.
Much of our misunderstanding or apprehension to dealing with various issues or commandments in the Torah, is because we fail to consider how such instructions were originally given to Ancient Israel in the Ancient Near East. When an ancient setting of various Torah commandments is consciously recognized, we may actually see how the Torah’s instruction for Ancient Israel ran into direct contrast or subversion to the law codes of their neighbors. When examining a whole host of issues, we will often find the trajectory of God’s Word at work, as the Pentateuchal legislation often lays the first stepping stones back to the idyllic state first seen in Eden, which are continued in the further revealing of salvation history in the Prophets, Writings, and Apostolic Scriptures. These are issues where there is a great need for better instruction and detailed analyses in the Messianic community, which will doubtlessly occupy a great deal of future studies and discussions.