Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Tradition or Torah: is there a conflict?

As we closeout 2012 and begin 2013, I have been reflecting on some of the discussions that I have had with my fellow believers over the last year, both those in the Hebrew Roots community and those in more “mainline” denominations.  Some of the biggest discussions have involved the subject of religious traditions.

Most of us who come to the Hebrew Roots community are seeking a closer and greater relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  We begin to understand that our Master Yeshua (Jesus) is teaching and calling us to a closer relationship with Himself.  We realize that Yeshua as well as the Apostles he chose to lead us are calling us back to the foundation of the Word of God, beginning with the Torah given to mankind at creation and codified at Mt. Sinai and continuing through the Prophets, the Gospels, the Apostolic Epistles and on through Revelation.  

In light of what we are learning about the nature of God and His desire for a relationship with us through the covenants and His appointed times, we tend to seek an avenue of expression of our faith by embracing some Jewish traditions; the keeping of the Sabbaths and the Feasts for example.  To many Christian believers this seems odd or even contrary to “New Testament” teaching.  We may even be accused of turning to “legalism” and forsaking grace.  We tend to gravitate to the Feasts and Sabbaths because we think of them as somehow being more pure than the Christian traditions we grew up with.  Or perhaps we find them new and exciting as we discover the Jewish nature of our Master Yeshua and history of the 1st Century Church.  Many of these traditions are certainly older, and some may be more closely based on specific scriptures in God’s word.  But how do we process all this new information and embrace these traditions without turning them into legalistic religious practices?  Which Jewish and Christian traditions do we take on, and which do we disregard?  I have even personally witnessed many in the Hebrew Roots community turn openly hostile toward traditional Christian holidays, attributing them to some kind of “pagan” origin primarily because of the calendar date on which they are traditionally practiced.  I believe this to be a serious mistake as well as counterproductive to the Great Commission.  These are difficult question to answer and hopefully as we progress in our walk, we will find the answers to them.  But it takes a great deal of time and study to sort this out.

Allow me to pose a question for you to consider as you read the remainder of this blog:  Given the fact that the calendar date of December 25 as well as the current calculation of the date for Easter, has in many ancient cultures, and specifically ancient Rome, been the date of some despicable pagan practices and rituals, because of this association, does it nullify the traditional Christian practice of celebrating the birth and resurrection of Yeshua on these dates?  In other words, because the Christian tradition of celebrating His birth is done on December 25, does that in itself constitute a "pagan" practice?

We all have gone through stages of discovery in our journey to a Hebraic understanding of Messiah.  One of the things that I hear a lot from people as they are discovering the Hebrew Roots of their faith, is that after a time of near total astonishment at the amazing depth of the Word of God; discovering a vast treasure house of understanding in the ancient texts; is that one begins to feel a sense of betrayal, that perhaps we may have been “lied” to by our previous pastors and teachers.  Is that really true?  Well not exactly!

It cannot be denied, that in our past, more traditional Christian Church we were saved and had the Holy Spirit fill our hearts and lives.  We cried out to Jesus and He saved us.  We had the gift of salvation by His grace so we were not “lied” to in a traditional sense.  A lie implies an intentional deception.  Many traditional Churches are filled with people who are saved and love the LORD with all their hearts, minds and strength as well as loving and serving others. This is the ideal of the greatest of the commandments which Yeshua spoke of in Matthew 22:36-40.

The truly saved in the traditional Christian Church are following God’s commandments to the best of their ability and to the extent of their knowledge and revelation that the LORD has given them, and the LORD honors their service.  Their faith is real and their works prove it out.  Faith without works is dead (James 2:20 & 26).  And the opposite is also true, that works without faith is dead as Jesus pointed out in the hypocrisy of some of the Jewish Pharisees and leaders of His day; Mark 7:1-13 among many other examples.  This hypocrisy was manifest in the twisting of the Torah of God into legalistic practices divorced from faith; taking traditions and making them the object of worship and devotion rather than service to God and to their fellow man.

But what is the place for traditions in a Torah lifestyle?  First of all, let me open with this thought: there is nothing wrong with religious traditions in general so long as they don’t interfere with or supersede the commandments of the Torah.  On the contrary, traditions are necessary for the doing of the commandments.  Perhaps before, but certainly since coming to the Hebrew Roots movement, many of us learned the importance of the Feasts Days and the Biblical calendar and now have a deep desire to celebrate them and to be on God’s schedule of appointed times.  We’ve turned to Jewish tradition to learn how we can observe these days.  As a result of this, in many cases, our old Christian traditions are totally disregarded in favor of these Jewish traditions.  In doing this some people have mistakenly embraced Judaism itself in place of Christianity, and ended up rejecting Yeshua as the promised Messiah. This is the great danger lurking within any tradition; Jewish or Christian.  Tradition can either lead us closer or further away from Messiah.

But how do we actually do the Feasts?  How do we celebrate them?  There is very little direct instruction in the Bible as to the actual practice of the Feast Days.  Each year we are commanded to observe the cycle of Feasts beginning with the Passover in the spring.  At my congregation we do this Feast by conducting a community Seder.  This has become a very large event we hold at a convention center with over a thousand people attending.  But there is no mention of a commandment to hold a Seder, let alone a community one, in the Bible.  So why do we do it?  We do it to fulfill the commandment of a “holy convocation”.  It is a tradition, based on scripture to facilitate the fulfillment of a commandment.  An convocation is a public meeting and implies a rehearsal or calling.

Leviticus 23:4-8 NKJV 4 'These are the feasts of the LORD, holy convocations which you shall proclaim at their appointed times. 5 'On the fourteenth day of the first month at twilight is the LORD'S Passover. 6 'And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the LORD; seven days you must eat unleavened bread. 7 'On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall do no customary work on it. 8 'But you shall offer an offering made by fire to the LORD for seven days. The seventh day shall be a holy convocation; you shall do no customary work on it.'"

Now you will notice that in verse 5 of this passage of scripture, we are told that the fourteenth day of the first month at twilight is the Passover and that we are to have a holy convocation; a public gathering.  But that is all it says.  There is no further detailed instruction here as to what we are to do at this public gathering.  If we look at prior scripture references to Passover, we find an instruction given to the children of Israel while they were still in captivity and slavery in Egypt to sequester themselves inside their homes and not to come out until morning.  In Exodus chapter 12 we find the account of this first Passover, at the time of the 10th plague, when the LORD passed over all the households which had the blood of the sacrificed lamb on their doorposts and lintels.

Exodus 12:22 NKJV 22 "And you shall take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. And none of you shall go out of the door of his house until morning.

So, at the Passover, are we to follow this scripture example and stay in our homes?  How do we reconcile this with Leviticus 23 where we are commanded to have a holy convocation; a public meeting?  Again, convocation implies a rehearsal, and a rehearsal implies that we are to prepare for a future event, not reenact a past event.  Maybe it’s starting to sound like there are contradicting commandments?  Let’s throw in another scripture reference to further cloud the issue.

Numbers 9:2-3 NKJV 2 "Let the children of Israel keep the Passover at its appointed time. 3 "On the fourteenth day of this month, at twilight, you shall keep it at its appointed time. According to all its rites and ceremonies you shall keep it."

What rites and ceremonies?  What is that all about?  Nowhere in scripture is there to be found any “rites and ceremonies” regarding the manor of celebration of the Passover, but yet here, in the Torah, the word of God, we are commanded to follow them.  But where do we find them?  Jewish tradition has it that an Oral Torah; that is an unwritten set of instruction was also given to Moses at Mt. Sinai and this is where we are to find many of these “rites and ceremonies.”  The tradition is that this Oral Torah was passed down from generation to generation starting with Moses and ultimately recorded in Jewish writings in the early centuries of the Common Era.  This is where we find the roots of modern day Jewish traditions; these “rites and ceremonies” that enhance our experience and practice of celebrating the Feast Days.   

Now these traditions have not been static and fixed through the ages since the time of Moses and the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.  They have changed dramatically over time.  At the time of Samuel, the Passover was observed at Shiloh and then moved to Mizpah.  At the time of Solomon, when the Temple was built and the tabernacle was replaced with a more permanent and far grander structure, the Passover was then observed at the Temple.  The Levites all of a sudden had new roles and new traditions and procedures evolved around the Temple service.  After the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of the Jewish people from Jerusalem, Passover could no longer be observed at the Temple in Jerusalem in the way that it had been for centuries up to that time.  New traditions were developed including the tradition that lamb is no longer sacrificed nor consumed at Passover. These traditions continue to evolve varying among the many sects or denominations of Judaism that exist today.  Who is to say that any one of these varying traditions are wrong so long as they do not interfere with or supplant the commandments of the Torah?  On the contrary the practice on these traditions constitute the very fulfillment of the Torah!

Let’s examine a slightly different example where a tradition is mentioned in the bible but nowhere is there a commandment establishing it.  Over time and especially after the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE, more than a thousand years after the time of Moses, several fast days were instituted to commemorate various events in Jewish cultural history including important or significant events surrounding the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians.  These fasts were instituted by the Sages, that is the Rabbi’s and other Jewish leaders in ancient times, guided by revelation given to the prophets, to commemorate some national tragedy.  They are not given as commandments in the Torah itself.  Three of these five minor fasts commemorate events leading to the downfall of the first commonwealth and the destruction of the first Temple. The destruction of the Temple itself is commemorated by a major fast (a major fast is observed from sunset to sunset) of Tisha B'Av, the 9th day of the biblical month of Av.  These traditional minor fast days are on Tishri 3, Tevet 10, Adar 13, Nissan 14 and Tammuz 17.  The second of these, the one on Tevet 10 was, for centuries, a fast to remember the siege of Jerusalem.  However, since the end of WWII and the founding of the modern nation of Israel, this fast has also been proclaimed a memorial day for the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust demonstrating how traditions change over time.

These minor fast days are mentioned later by the prophet Zechariah, well after the time they were established where the LORD says that they will one day be turned into feast days.
Zechariah 8:18-19 NKJV 18 Then the word of the LORD of hosts came to me, saying, 19 "Thus says the LORD of hosts: 'The fast of the fourth month, The fast of the fifth, The fast of the seventh, And the fast of the tenth, Shall be joy and gladness and cheerful feasts For the house of Judah. Therefore love truth and peace.'

One of the most important things to be recognized in this passage is found between the lines, implied indirectly by the text.  What we see here is the LORD, speaking through the prophet Zechariah, recognizing the fast days as established by men and He honors them, and states that they will one day be turned to feast days.  The LORD does not rebuke the people for establishing a man made tradition!

Yeshua Himself commented on many of the traditions of His day and even practiced extra-scriptural traditions.  One tradition that we see Him observing is the festival of Hanukkah.  In the Gospel of John, we find Yeshua at the Temple celebrating this minor Feast:

John 10:22 NKJV 22 Now it was the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, and it was winter.

The “Feast of Dedication” is a direct reference to Hanukkah.  The Hebrew word Hanukkah directly translates as dedication.  Unlike the minor fast days, the Feast of Hanukkah is not to be found anywhere in all of Jewish scripture, either in establishment or in mention.  It is purely and completely a traditional feast, instituted by the Jewish leadership and not originating as a commandment from God.  It is meant to celebrate the rededication of the Temple after the desecration of it by Antiochus IV Epiphanies less than two hundred years prior to Yeshua’s day.  Hanukkah was not instituted until well after the canon of Jewish scripture was closed.  Nowhere in the Gospel accounts of Yeshua’s ministry is it recorded that He was present in Jerusalem except during, or immediately prior to a Feast day or in this case, the minor festival of Hanukkah, of which He must have deemed important enough to travel to Jerusalem to attend and celebrate. 

In conclusion, we see clearly from history and from the example of our Master Yeshua Himself that there is a place for man-made religious traditions in the community of believers.  That just because a tradition is instituted by men and not a direct commandment from God does not mean that it is of “pagan” origin.  Just because the calendar date on which it may occur is, or was previously the date of a former, no longer practiced “pagan” festival, or historically as in the case of Hanukkah, a date of a despicable act of the desecration of the Altar of God, does not mean that that date is forever given over to paganism or to Satan.  Dates on the calendar, ALL dates belong to God for He created them all.  Yeshua’s example in His celebration of Hanukkah makes this clear.

So what do we do with the Christian traditions we grew up with?  How do we reconcile them in light of the Hebraic roots of Christianity?  What traditions or parts of traditions do we keep and what do we discard if any?  These are not easy questions to answer and please don’t look to me to tell you what to do.  The answers must be worked out in your own life through your own walk with Messiah Yeshua, guided by the Holy Spirit.  But I think the opening question is answered.  Christian traditions such as celebrating Yeshua’s birth on December 25 and celebrating His death and resurrection on Easter Sunday in and of themselves do not constitute a “pagan” practice.

We just have to realize that traditions are neither good nor evil in and of themselves.  The key is what we turn them into and what we bring into them from the worldly culture around us.  If we make them an end to themselves, then they are a form of Idolatry.  On the other hand, if they are a means to bring a certain richness and depth to your relationship to God and draw you to a closer walk with Him, then that is entirely different.   The same traditions can be vastly different things to different people, whether it is an old Jewish tradition or a newer Christian one.  It is a personal journey and walk with Yeshua and you must work it out with Him.

יבורך שלום
Shalom and be blessed
Dan & Brenda Cathcart

Visit our web site at www.moedministries.com