BUILDING A FENCE AROUND THE TORAH

Daniel C. Juster, Director

The famous rabbinical maxim to "build a fence around the law" was originally published in the Talmudic tract, Pirque Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). The basic thinking is as follows: We do not want to violate the Torah. If we create extra laws to protect the Torah, and we obey those extra laws, then we will not come close to disobeying the Torah. Numerous Rabbinical requirements can be understood as attempts to protect the Torah in this way.

The most common example of protecting the Torah is the laws of Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), especially the laws concerning milk and meat. The Torah exhorts us to not boil a kid (a baby goat) in its mother's milk. This command is in the context of pagan Canaanite practice. It is also an obvious humanitarian deference to animal life. To protect this law, the rabbis decided that eating milk and meat together, even if not from the same animal, should be avoided. Once this was accepted, they determined that we needed to have hours of separation between meat meals and milk meals so that milk and meat will not be cooked together in our digestive system. Once this was accepted, we were required to have separate dishes for milk and meat since there is a possibility that particles of meat or milk may be left on the plate and get mixed and eaten. In the case of Kashrut, a new fence is made for each new rabbinic law!

Other Rabbinic Law Developments

This is one side of rabbinic legalism, the multiplying of laws to protect the Torah. However, the Rabbis are not without mercy. Sometimes when a Biblical law was seen as too harsh, rabbinic enactments were made to mitigate the strictness of the law. For example, monetary fines take the place of cutting off a hand or putting out an eye.

In Israel, we are presently living through a great controversy between Orthodox authorities. It is the Sabbatical year and the Bible commands that fields be left fallow. Some follow the rabbinic teaching that allows crops to be planted on the Sabbatical year by selling the land to a Gentile for one year. Other rabbis reject this way of getting around the law.

Rabbinic Jewish law has developed in three directions: First, are the creative applications of the law to new circumstances, which all legal systems in all societies must accomplish. Second, is the unnecessary multiplication of laws. And third, are ways to get around the law. Yeshua addressed these tendencies in the New Covenant when He accused the Pharisees of making void the Word of God by their traditions. (Matthew 15:3)

Development in All Legal Systems

Lest we be overly critical of the rabbis, we should take note that all civil legal systems in all developed societies do the same thing as Rabbinic Judaism. We should remember that Rabbinic Judaism is both a civil legal system and a religious legal system in one. As laws multiply, we find ourselves in a situation where the intent of basic law has been undermined. Legislation is then required to bring reform and return the law to its more basic intent to serve true justice. This is perhaps best seen in the development of legislation to protect the rights of the accused. As legislatures and courts have applied the law, they have made it more and more difficult for the victim of crime to obtain justice. The intent is good; to avoid punishing an innocent person. At times this concern is over emphasized in the law. For example, there may be absolute certainty that a person committed a crime, but because the accused was not rightly read his legal rights, he will be allowed to go free. The victim will have no justice. This infuriates people. Sometimes the victim takes justice into his own hands. There are even situations where the victim has killed the criminal.

Instead of letting the criminal go free, the court should punish the official who violated the law, but not free the certainly guilty criminal. This results in guilty rapists, murderers, and thieves roaming among us. We also have guilty murderers going through an average 13 year appeal process before the death penalty is enacted. All through this time, those who lost loved ones must suffer through this agonizingly drawn out process and cannot experience closure.

Reapplications Are Needed

On the other hand, when circumstances change, additional laws are sometimes necessary to preserve the intent of the original law. At times laws need to be qualified so that unnecessary harshness and injustice do not result. Some development in law is necessary. Though in general, Western legislatures pass too many laws, some of these new laws are beneficial and important.

Religious Laws

In religious life, we are also tempted to multiply laws to preclude violating holiness. The Bible commands us to not get drunk. The fence mentality enjoins us to not use wine at all. This way one will never get drunk. The Bible says that we are to avoid all appearance of evil. This same mentality prohibits playing pocket billiards because billiard halls are bad places. This is also applied as a prohibition against all movies - even good films because it associates the attendee with Hollywood, which is generally regarded as evil. Yet, persons who truly want to do the will of God are not constrained by such a legal system; instead they should allow their conscience to be guided by the Holy Spirit and in this dynamic way avoid evil behavior.

The Problem with Legalism

Legalism undercuts justice, spiritual life and joy. My own view is that Believers need to keep God's commandments through the power of Yeshua. We should also honor worthy and beautiful traditions and applications, but not make them into law. In addition, we should always be seeking legal reform in our society to return our system of law to simpler justice. The Sermon on the Mount is very clear. Yeshua in all His divine authority restores Torah to its heart intent and sweeps away illegitimate and excessive accumulations of man-made laws. We now live in a New Covenant Order where the spirit of the Torah is paramount. This is not a means of circumventing the Torah, but is the way to fulfill its true meaning.

By Daniel Juster


Dan Juster leads the overall ministry Tikkun International. Donate to Tikkun International.

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Comments:
10:35 06Dec07 Paul Kugelman, Jr. -
R. Dr. Juster,

Before I begin, I want to say that I have deep and sincere respect for you and your work within the Messianic movement. It is with a sincere sense of humility that I offer this response to your article. The written word can easily be misconstrued in tone. Let me assure you that my tone is one of respect and deference.

While I understand the basis for your concern, I have to disagree with the thrust of your article. Before getting to the main point of my response, I first point out that your article indirectly declares that the Messianic Jewish community stands on its own, separate and apart from the rest of the Jewish community. When you say, "We should also honor worthy and beautiful traditions and applications, but not make them into law," you are presupposing that the authority of Messianic Jewish community is independent of the Jewish community as well as asserting that Judaism has no authority in the Messianic Jewish community unless and until we adopt it. You do this when you assert that the laws of Judaism do not apply to the Messianic Jewish community unless and until we "make them into law." However, Messiah does not agree. "Then Yeshua said to the crowds and to his disciples, 'The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you ...'" Matthew 23:1-3. In light of this, it is law already. Your statement that "The Sermon on the Mount is very clear. Yeshua in all His divine authority restores Torah to its heart intent and sweeps away illegitimate and excessive accumulations of man-made laws" flies in the face of this as well. The laws may be man-made, but they are established with Divine authority. Yeshua did not alter Torah, rather He raised the bar by taking a transgression from the manifestation of thought to the thought itself. The Messianic Jewish movement does not have the authority to redefine Judaism. What is more, the Messianic Jewish movement cannot adopt the position you espouse here and also claim to be a part of the Jewish community. Rather, this position clearly signals the establishment of a new and distinct community. I do not believe that the Messianic Jewish community can fulfill our call within that position, much less maintain our integrity and call ourselves a Jewish community, whatever adjective we place before it.

Turning to the main point of my response, I am concerned that you have taken on the paradigm of looking at Judaism through the lens of the antinomian segment of the church. You accept the presumption that observance is "legalism" and that this, somehow, undercuts justice. When we come to understand Judaism in the time of Yeshua and in the present, we come to realize that observance is a loving response to G-d in all that we do. Judaism is a way of life, not a mindset or a part of life that we enter into when we feel the need. With that, our whole life points to G-d. As for our salvation, Judaism requires us to trust in His mercy - no more and no less. Judaism views this as independent of observance. Observance is our response. Our salvation is wholly based on His mercy. What is even more interesting is that once we come to grips with this, we can see that Yeshua's sacrifice fits neatly into place within the rubric of Judaism. As you know, the Torah requires a blood sacrifice to reestablish our relationship with G-d after we have sinned. Yeshua's sacrifice fulfills this requirement in a time when we can no longer do so. Without the Temple, there is no proper place to bring the required sacrifice. Even with that, we, as Believers, still are left with trusting in His mercy. We cannot "prove" we are "saved." How responding to G-d on His terms in all that we do and trusting in His mercy undercuts justice, I cannot comprehend.

  -- Dr Juster replies: I would respond in two ways.

  1. I do not think I am saying anything very different than either Reform or Conservative Judaism which seeks to embrace or not embrace Rabbinic Law and tradition according to their own ethos as Conservative and Reformed Jews. No one would say they do this outside the Jewish people. However, they do pick and choose. Our picking and choosing is according to the standard of Yeshua. It is a different foundation of choice.
  2. That Judaism slips into legalism is to me clear from reading the focus on minute matters in the Talmud and summarized in the Shulhan Aruck. How anyone can read the latter and not be overwhelmed by the legalism is beyond me.
  3. Matthew 23 can be read in three ways that do not lead to your conclusions on Rabbinic authority.
    1. First is that Yeshua is affirming the civil law role of the synagogue authorities as accepted by Roman government.
    2. authority is transferred to the Disciples for this after his resurrection and we see this in Matthew 16, 18 and 21, especially where Yeshua gives the disciples the Keys to the Kingdom which the Pharisees claimed to possess. Yeshua's words on the Pharisees is the same as Paul's words on respecting Roman civil government in Romans 13, and I do not think more than this.
    3. Karaite Jeremiah Gordon (not a follower of Yeshua) makes a strong case that Yeshua's condemnation in Matthew 23 is not consistent with affirming such a strong place for Pharisee authority. He points to the evidence of the Hebrew Matthew (Shem Tov) that Matthew 23 originally read that the "Scribes and Pharisees claim to sit on Moses seat, but do not do as they command you." Would Yeshua be telling us to embrace the heavy burden they put on people. Your argument seems to say that it is not a heavy burden. The level of legal requirement in the first century was much less than a few centuries later.

10:43 06Dec07 Meagen -
Thank you for this article, it has given me insight into a subject that I've recently been wondering about. This was and is very timely.

11:30 06Dec07 Ken MacNeil -
I think it is a well written, exellent article. It may be confusing once more Rav Shaul's words stating "I have done nothing against the traditions of the father." I do believe that there is a balance, or happy medium if you will. Maybe you can expand on that next time.

12:48 06Dec07 Caleb Alcala -
It is not very clear - when you said: "We now live in a new covenant order ... were the spirit of Torah is pararamont." Can you explain in other words please.

  -- Dr Juster replies: When the New Covenant says that God will make a new covenant not like the one made when we came from Egypt, but that he would write the Torah on our hearts, it also implies the motivation to do God's will. In the New Covenant Paul uses the team spirit of the Torah. This is not a lower standard, but implies perceiving the heart intent of the Torah and going beyond the literal meaning to a more exacting and high standard. I think the spirit of the Torah is most seen in the teaching of Yeshua, especially the Sermon on the Mount.

13:37 06Dec07 Ashlee Esty -
I am a gentile believer in Yeshua and have recently come across some information that disturbed me concerning the Torah. This article basically said that true believers obey Torah. I agree that our obedience to the Lord testifies of our belief in Him and that faith without works is dead. I understand that even demons believe in who Jesus is but don't obey Him and so they are condemned. What I needed clarity on is the observance of the Sabbath. Paul speaks to the Romans about differing convictions and tells them to make sure that they are fully convinced in their own minds in regards to the way they honor the Lord. Are gentiles required to observe the Sabbath? If so, what does that look like? I don't believe we are required to become Jewish in regards to some things, but the Lord does tell us to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. I am not sure if this is a command only for Jews or if it is for everyone. I believe we are to follow the 10 Commandments, but as a gentile I have never been shown what Sabbath observance looks like. I want to obey the Lord fully, not because I am afraid of Him but because I love Him. I want to understand what pleases my Jewish Messiah and do it out of love and not legalistic compulsion. Sunday is the day we gather for corporate worship, but it often isn't a day of rest. Can you please help me understand how to honor the Lord's Sabbath and why it is so important to Him? Thank you for your time.

  -- Dr Juster replies: The Jewish people in the time of Yeshua made a distinction between universal aspects of the Torah that are for all people and those parts that are the responsibility of the Jewish people. The univerasl part is seen in the sermon on the mount of Yeshua. Sabbath was put in the category of optional for Gentiles. I think we can see that in a world that did not even keep time by seven day weeks, the enjoining of Sabbath would have been a hardship and still is in many cultures. This later was enshrined in the idea of the Noahchide laws for all, as redacted by the rabbis.

Today scholars note that the Sabbath is not like other commands but functions as a covenant sign between God and Israel. Its place on the tablet is a substitute for the seal of an idol engraving that would be in other covenants.

16:08 06Dec07 Gilly -
Thank you so much for bringing such a clear perspective to these very important issues. This has made some of Yeshua's teachings much clearer. As the laws are now written on our hearts, may His Ruach lead and guide us in all truth.

21:26 06Dec07 Bob Colver -
This is a true word by the Spirit. Ern Baxter said "The Kingdom of G-d is in the Holy Spirit", as the word without the Spirit brings death and legalism, but the life of the word {Torah}, is by the Spirit which brings truth and revelation from heaven, as our life is in the transformation of our minds to the will of G-d.

11:21 07Dec07 Igor Miguel -
Thank you so much for that important article. I think our position before rabbinic laws and traditional Jewish approach to 'halakhah' must be of balance. We know the great and important role which halakhah fullfiled to protect and keep identity up. At same time, we shall have clear in mind that the rabbinic tradition has a legalistic structure which fades the Jewish perception of Messiah Yeshua.

11:24 07Dec07 Clifton J Tracy Jr -
Rabbinic Law obscures the real intent of the Torah Law, consequently allowing legalism to undercut Justice. Your view as stated is academicaly sound and the paragraph go straight to the point and I agree whole heartedly. But - I am told that the average grade level of the US is sixth grade and the Gentiles comming into the Jewish community are full of their brand of Gentile legalism, (Jewish legalism and Gentile legalism are enormously different); what to keep or not to keep is not so clear. When you say God's Commandments you mean both what God himself wrote and what He told Moses to write in a book, in other words: the Torah. To the Gentile that is not the case. My view is that believers need to keep God's Ten Commandments through the power of Yeshua's New Covenant Law.

12:05 08Dec07 anonymous -
While I am all against legalism (worship of legal codes rather than Hashem our triune G-d), I strongly discourage that Messianic Jews should fall in the opposite trap: that of Karaism. Yeshua is no Karaite! Running errands for Jeremiah Gordon and his teachings, is not helping us or spreading our Good News. G-d bless ya'll, and have a very happy Chanukah! Keep those menorahs shining, knowing that this is a rabbinic tradition, part of our heritage and future, and also a shadow of our righteous Messiah Yeshua!

20:33 09Dec07 Shirley Braggs -
Thank you, Dr Juster, for this timely and much needed article. I agree with your response to the gentile Christian who was wondering about the Sabbath, but, I would like to say to that sincere sister-in-Yeshua that I am a gentile believer in Yeshua, also, and I can tell her that there is a wonderful difference in keeping "a sabbath" and keeping "The Shabbat". There was a time for most of my walk with Yeshua that I felt keeping Shabbat on the 7th day was a legalistic approach to worship but I can truthfully say that since I joined the Messianic Jewish movement, Shabbat is a delight beyond any comparison to Sunday worship as I knew it before. The whole day is given to Hashem and it has a sweetness that only a bride and groom would understand. Corporate worship on Sunday generally consumes a few hours (2-4) and not the whole day spent devoted to delighting in a time set aside for the communion with Him. Gathering with fellow believers can be accomplished any day of the week and every day as in the early church described in the book of Acts. I would like to encourage this sister to find a Messianic Congregation to visit and enjoy the delight of the Shabbat. It is truly a taste of His finest wine.

15:51 10Dec07 Jonathon R. Storm -
Excellent! As I have come to understand the Torah, legal systems, and walked many years with Yeshua, this is the understanding I have come to. I develop databases for Expedia.com, and I have seen that the same type of contant going-back-to-the-source and refreshing the systems we work with and work under is necessary both in our walk of faith and in software design, as well as our legal and religious structures. God created us so that we have a desire to both create tradition and to renew tradition. He has enabled us to make tradition and observe it, and at the same time He encourages us to renew it over time, scrapping beautiful hymns and liturgies because the new generation is not able to connect with Him as the former generation did. (I love many of the old hymns too, but no longer sing them.) Such change to human tradition is as the leaves of fall--they were beautiful in their spring, their summertime, and in their vibrant colors of fall. By contrast, the Word stands forever, the rule, guide, and standard by which we live. He has kept His Torah (and all of the Bible) as concrete and real as possible, while yet making it spare enough that we must have the fullness of the Holy Spirit indwelling us to have it fully applied to our lives. He has made it so it need not be renewed; yet our understanding of it is renewed over time. Thank you Dan.

16:38 10Dec07 anonymous -
The Torah is a fence around us as long as we obey the Torah!


Also in this issue of the newsletter:

Martin Shoub: The Year of New Beginnings
Leon Mazin: Turning our Hearts to the Fathers
Asher Intrater: Strategic Alliance