Many groups that maintain attachment to the Bible, be they Messianic, Christian, or mainstream Judaism, wrestle with exactly how to approach the Torah of Moses. Too many people throw around the title "Torah observant" without considering many factors. Here are Rabbi Josh's thoughts on the subject...
#1. We need an approach to the sefer Torah (5 books of Moses) that distinguishes the eternal teaching of God (true Torah) from the halachah (practice of the Torah) for Moses' day. One Torah teaching is that I am to love my neighbor as myself (Lev. 19:18). It's a halachah within the Torah to put a border around my roof (Deut. 22:8). In other words, in Moses' day I would put a border around my roof to protect those who would spend time up there as a way of loving my neighbor. Do I still have to put a border around my roof today? Only if I plan on hanging out on the roof. If I put up a border to follow the letter of the law, thus endangering a workman for no real reason, I may actually be breaking the aim of the law - to love and protect my neighbor. Was Hezekiah breaking or keeping Torah when he asked God's forgiveness for celebrating the Passover without all the people being clean according to Moses (2 Chronicles 30)? Verse 20 says that "The Lord heard Hezekiah's prayer". If we get caught up in a black and white approach to halachah and every word of the sefer Torah, we may be inadvertently throwing out the aim of Torah. A black and white approach that emphasizes an established halachah over the overall aim of the Torah would have precluded many from Hezekiah's Passover, and this was apparently not on the heart of God. Matthew 5:17 and following explains what it means to be Torah observant. In this portion, Yeshua (Jesus) tells us not to break the least of the commands of Torah and to have our righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. The way to not break the least commandment, the way to have our righteousness exceed that of the very diligent scribes and Pharisees, is explained in the rest of the chapter and in Yeshua's teachings in general. Yeshua tells us in this portion not just to keep from murdering, we also shouldn't become angry without reason; don't just avoid adultery, you shouldn't even lust in your heart. Did Yeshua ever condemn the Pharisees for walking too far on Shabbat or for not waiting between eating milk and meat? No. His condemnation was always about the heart. This is Torah. Some of the other non-heart issues are halachah which often must change depending on age and circumstance. Another important example of this interaction between eternal Torah and changing halachah is the sacrificial system. The Torah is that blood makes atonement for us (see, for example, Leviticus 17:11). The way this was worked out in Moses' day was through animal sacrifice. Now, however, we have a better sacrifice - the death of the perfect Lamb of God, Yeshua our Messiah. Hebrews 9:13, 14 (from the Tree of Life Bible): For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Messiah—who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God—cleanse our conscience from dead works to serve the living God? We see then, that every word of Torah remains, but to expect that we will work out the righteous demands of Torah in the same manner as Moses, who lived thousands of years and ago and preceded the Messiah, is impractical, impossible, and occasionally counter-productive to following Torah. (Romans 8:1-4)
#2. We need to emphasize a spiritual approach to Torah. Romans 7:6 "But now we have been released from the law, having died to what confined us, so that we serve in the new way of the Ruach and not in the old way of the letter." We are still serving the same aim of Torah, but Jeremiah 31:33's prophecy that the New Covenant will be the Torah on our hearts means that we serve in a new way. The Torah is internalized to a greater extent than before Yeshua. We must realize that our halachah (way of working out the Torah) will be guided by the Spirit of God within us.
#3. On the first day of a new school year, students come into a classroom and under the direction of a new teacher. They are no longer under their previous teacher's direct instruction. However, if they disregard everything they learned from their previous teacher, they will not do well in the new class. They still have to apply the laws of behavior and attitude they learned before. Galatians 3:23 (Tree of Life Bible) "Now before faith came, we were being guarded under Torah - bound together until the coming faith would be revealed. Therefore the Torah became our guardian to lead us to Messiah, so that we might be made right based on trusting." The Torah of Moses is the previous teacher. We cannot throw it out. It is still the word of God (2 Tim 3:16). It is still full of practical and spiritual wisdom. It is the foundation for our understanding of the New Covenant. To throw it out would be a mistake; however, to not also emphasize that our relationship to it has changed because of Messiah (Galatians 3, Romans 6, Matthew 5, Jeremiah 31) is also a tragic mistake. Our definition of Torah observance, in my opinion, should consider these issues.
I feel that there are many benefits to this approach to the Torah of Moses. First of all, it maintains a high view of the scriptures God has given to us and does not relegate Moses or any other writings to obscurity or secondary importance. Secondly, it is a flexible enough approach to halachah to allow for unity for both the more and less orthodox followers of Messiah. Those less orthodox are not to be riddled with guilt as long as they follow the Spirit in their approach and application to the scriptures, although they must be cautioned to make application where possible and when meaningful. The more orthodox may take joy in their life-style but must not be filled with pride that comes from believing that their halachah mirrors that of Moses more closely than it actually does, nor believe there is holiness in blindly applying rulings that are thousands of years old and have lost their meaning when followed literally. However, for many believers who follow a more orthodox-jewish way of life, there is a connection to our Jewish history, and a connection to Torah that provides a God-centered structure to their lives. As long as orthodox practice does not replace in any way reliance on Yeshua for salvation, and as long as they do not honor the traditions of the rabbis on an equal par with those of the B'rit Chadashah (New Testament) (Matthew 15:1-9), I see no reason that they should be dissuaded from such a lifestyle. Thirdly, this approach emphasizes what Yeshua and the early disciples emphasized, that is, the over-all aim of creating a holy and unified people, and it does not stress the minutia (ex. how far one may walk on Shabbat, how to slaughter a kosher animal, etc.) which the New Testament scriptures largely (if not completely) ignores and which has the potential to lead to disunity over disagreements in application of Torah. In short, let us all be Messiah-focused, Spirit-led, and unified despite our various approaches to applying the Torah (Romans 14).
Shalom Aleichem, Rabbi Josh
For more on the Jewish concept and application of Torah under the New Covenant, please listen to the recordings on Matthew 5:17 in the "Bible Studies" tab. My thanks to Rabbi Dr. Joseph Rosenfarb for some of the insights for this article, particularly in regards to Halachah within the Sefer Torah.