The foundation of Jewish orthodoxy is the lawthe Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Old Testament) and the Talmud (the official rabbinical interpretation of the Pentateuch). These are the sacred Jewish Scriptures called Torah.
Both Jesus (Matthew 5:17-18) and Paul (Galatians 3:19-25) affirmed the authority of the law. But they also considered the law a mixed blessing. It brings awareness of sin to people who are unconscious of their depravity, but it offers no solution for human corruption besides a hopeless striving to perfectly fulfill all the law’s requirements (Romans 3:20).
This vain striving for perfection could already be seen in the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, who added ever more complicated rules to the laws of the Old Testament, thinking that by making and keeping rules they would attain greater spiritual purity and peace with God (Matthew 23:1-5, 15-26). Modern orthodox Jews are heirs of the Pharisees. In dispersion they added many volumes of detail to the official interpretation of the law. Today, even a lifetime of Talmudic study can never provide mastery of all of the minutiae of rules and regulations inscribed in rabbinical tradition.
The apostle Paul was a Pharisee (Acts 22:1-5). However, as a Pharisee he discovered that keeping the external detail of the law did not bring peace with God. He discovered that while the law makes people conscious of sin, it offers no means of deliverance from sin’s power. In fact, once the law brings awareness of sin, it has the opposite effectit inflames rebellion.
It is difficult for a person who hasn’t been reared in legalism to understand Paul’s meaning when he speaks of the law “arousing sinful passions” and causing sin to “spring to life” (Romans 7:5-9). However, when someone has no other basis for forgiveness than keeping the law, they begin to view the law itself as the source of salvation. This, in turn, introduces such an emphasis on rules that rebellion is the natural result. A Jewish survivor of German concentration camps, Israel Shahak, described the extent to which Orthodox Judaism strives to avoid violations of the law:
“The following example illustrates even better the level of absurdity reached by this system. One of the prototypes of work forbidden on the Sabbath is harvesting. This is stretched, by analogy, to a ban on breaking a branch off a tree. Hence, riding a horse (or any other animal) is forbidden, as a hedge against the temptation to break a branch off a tree for flogging the beast. It is useless to argue that you have a ready-made whip, or that you intend to ride where there are no trees. What is forbidden remains forbidden for ever. It can, however, be stretched and made stricter: in modern times, riding a bicycle on the Sabbath has been forbidden, because it is analogous to riding a horse.” 1
Dependency upon the law for righteousness and security before God results in rules so complicated and impossible to fulfill that they make life impossible. This results not only in hostility towards the law, but a desire to find ways to circumvent it.2 Fully aware of the law’s function and effect, Paul realized it was not the law, but faith that brings salvation. (Romans 4:9-16). But what is the basis of this saving faith?
Assurance of salvation can’t be based on the law, as the law only magnifies consciousness of sin. Any attempt to achieve assurance on the basis of the law will produce greater guilt. (This is why children of legalistic Christians, Muslims, or Jews often become self-righteous bigots who project their own sinfulness on everyone else or rebels who reject all morality and tradition.) Faith in the law as a means of forgiveness for sin leads only to a cycle of desperate legalism leading either to self-righteous arrogance or despairing rebellion.
The Jewish Bible offers a basis for faith outside of the law. It points to a Messiah who will bear the sins of His people (Genesis 22:1-8; Exodus 12:3-7; Psalm 22; Isaiah 53:1-12). The church was founded on the confidence that Jesus was the Lamb of God ( John 1:29 ) 3, bearer of a gospel that offers forgiveness of sin (John 1:29; 1 Corinthians 15:13; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13; Hebrews 9:28; 1 Peter 1:18, 19; 1 John 2:2; Revelation 5:12).
Unlike faith in the Law alone, faith in Jesus as the Messiah confirms the authority of the Law while offering deliverance from its condemnation, offering both Jews and Gentiles forgiveness and peace with God.
- Shahak continues: “My final example illustrates how the same methods are used also in purely theoretical cases, having no conceivable application in reality. During the existence of the Temple, the High Priest was only allowed to marry a virgin. Although during virtually the whole of the Talmudic period there was no longer a Temple or a High Priest, the Talmud devotes one of its more involved (and bizarre) discussions to the precise definition of the term ‘virgin’ fit to marry a High Priest. What about a woman whose hymen had been broken by accident? Does it make any difference whether the accident occurred before or after the age of three? By the impact of metal or of wood? Was she climbing a tree? And if so, was she climbing up or down? Did it happen naturally or unnaturally? All this and much else besides is discussed in lengthy detail. And every scholar in classical Judaism had to master hundreds of such problems. Great scholars were measured by their ability to develop these problems still further, for as shown by the examples there is always scope for further developmentif only in one directionand such development did actually continue after the final redaction of the Talmud.” (Israel Shahak, Jewish History, Jewish Religion (pp. 40-41)) Back To Article
- Israel Shahak offers examples of the kinds of subterfuges that orthodox Jews have used to “keep the law” in a way that allowed them a degree of normalcy in daily life:
“Milking on the Sabbath. This has been forbidden in post-talmudic times, through the process of increasing religious severity mentioned above. The ban could easily be kept in the diaspora, since Jews who had cows of their own were usually rich enough to have non-Jewish servants, who could be ordered (using one of the subterfuges described below) to do the milking. The early Jewish colonists in Palestine employed Arabs for this and other purposes, but with the forcible imposition of the Zionist policy of exclusive Jewish labour there was need for a dispensation. (This was particularly important before the introduction of mechanised milking in the late 1950s.) Here too there was a difference between Zionist and non-Zionist rabbis. According to the former, the forbidden milking becomes permitted provided the milk is not white but dyed blue. This blue Saturday milk is then used exclusively for making cheese, and the dye is washed off into the whey. Non-Zionist rabbis have devised a much subtler scheme (which I personally witnessed operating in a religious kibbutz in 1952). They discovered an old provision which allows the udders of a cow to be emptied on the Sabbath, purely for relieving the suffering caused to the animal by bloated udders, and on the strict condition that the milk runs to waste on the ground. Now, this is what is actually done: on Saturday morning, a pious kibbutznik goes to the cowshed and places pails under the cows. (There is no ban on such work in the whole of the talmudic literature.) He then goes to the synagogue to pray. Then comes his colleague, whose ‘honest intention’ is to relieve the animals’ pain and let their milk run to the floor. But if, by chance, a pail happens to be standing there, is he under any obligation to remove it? Of course not. He simply ‘ignores’ the pails, fulfills his mission of mercy and goes to the synagogue. Finally a third pious colleague goes into the cowshed and discovers, to his great surprise, the pails full of milk. So he puts them in cold storage and follows his comrades to the synagogue. Now all is well, and there is no need to waste money on blue dye.
“Similar dispensations were issued by zionist rabbis in respect of the ban (based on Leviticus 19:19) against sowing two different species of crop in the same field. Modern agronomy has however shown that in some cases (especially in growing fodder) mixed sowing is the most profitable. The rabbis invented a dispensation according to which one man sows the field lengthwise with one kind of seed, and later that day his comrade, who ‘does not know’ about the former, sows another kind of seed crosswise. However, this method was felt to be too wasteful of labour, and a better one was devised: one man makes a heap of one kind of seed in a public place and carefully covers it with a sack or piece of board. The second kind of seed is then put on top of the cover. Later, another man comes and exclaims, in front of witnesses, ‘I need this sack (or board)’ and removes it, so that the seeds mix ‘naturally.’ Finally, a third man comes along and is told, ‘Take this and sow the field,’ which he proceeds to do.” Back To Article
- Interestingly, The Qur’an (3:39) also refers to John the Baptist calling Jesus “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Back To Article