Re-evaluating the Wisdom of Using Extra-Biblical
Jewish Traditions for Messianic Worship

By Dr. Daniel Botkin

The Apostle Paul warned Titus about the importance of "not giving heed to Jewish fables and commandments of men, that turn from the truth" (Titus 1:14). There is nothing wrong with using fictional stories ("fables") as parables to illustrate spiritual truths. Yeshua often did this. And there is nothing inherently evil about manmade traditions per se. But if Jewish traditions and fables turn people away from the truth, then there is a problem.

The worst Jewish fable is the one that has been around since the morning after the Messiah's Resurrection: "His disciples stole the body." Some Jewish fables, though relatively harmless, are just plain silly. For example, the rabbis say that Queen Vashti had a tail. Adam had one, too. [Others are outright immoral, such as one which states that] Adam also mated with other "wives," Neanderthal-like creatures that were not quite human. [Or] here's another one [on the silly side]: When Pharaoh's daughter rescued baby Moses, her arm miraculously telescoped and stretched way out to the middle of the Nile River to reach the basket. Furthermore, we are told by rabbis that this is the true meaning of the Bible's statement that [Yahweh] redeemed us "with an outstretched arm." We should not take such farfetched Jewish fables seriously.

What about following Jewish traditions? Some Jewish customs would be okay except for the fact that they are presented as commandments of [Yahweh] instead of traditions of men. The kindling of Sabbath candles is one such example. When lighting the candles, Jewish tradition requires the recitation of a blessing which states that [Yahweh] "commanded us to kindle the Sabbath lights." But [Yahweh] commanded no such thing. There is nothing in the Scriptures that even suggests that candles should be lit to honor the Sabbath. Orthodox Jewish sources admit that the custom originated as a reaction against the Karaites, Jews who rejected the Oral Traditions of the rabbis. The Bible says not to kindle a fire on the Sabbath, so the Karaites did not use fire for anything on the Sabbath, even if the fire had been kindled before the Sabbath. The Orthodox understood (correctly, in this case) that it is permissible to derive benefits from a fire on the Sabbath if the fire is kindled before the Sabbath. So to prove that they were not Karaites (and perhaps to spite the Karaites), the Orthodox Jews began the custom of lighting candles just before the beginning of the Sabbath. Now every Sabbath, Orthodox Jews declare that [Yahweh] "commanded us to kindle the Sabbath lights." They do the same thing every winter with the blessing for the Hanukkah candles, stating that [Yahweh] "commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah lights," even though there is no biblical commandment--not even in Maccabees, the book that tells the Hanukkah story. By making these statements, Jews affirm their loyalty to the Oral Torah--the traditions of the rabbis which were rightly rejected by the Karaites and the Nazarenes. Even the blessing recited after the Torah reading is meant to affirm one's loyalty to the Oral Torah, according to The Artscroll Siddur, which says of this blessing "'Torah of truth' refers to Written Torah, 'eternal life' refers to the Oral Torah."1

Most people in the Messianic movement desire to worship and practice their faith like the Apostles did. Some believers erroneously assume that this means that we should follow the Torah in the manner prescribed by Orthodox Judaism. However, the Orthodox Judaism of today is not the form of Judaism which existed in the days of the Apostles. The questions we need to ask are not "What do the rabbis teach?" or "How do Jews interpret the Torah?" The questions we need to ask are "What did the Messiah and the Apostles teach? How did first-century Messianic believers worship? What was their view of the Written Torah? What did they think of the Oral Torah with its man-made traditions?"

These questions are partly answered in the New Testament. However, there are some details which are not answered in the New Testament, nor even in extra-biblical historical writings. The period of history between the death of the Apostles and the appearance of the so-called "Church Fathers" is a period which is especially sketchy to say the least. Consider what historians have said about this period of history:

"For fifty years after Paul's life, a curtain hangs over the Church, through which we vainly strive to look; and when at last it rises, about 129 A.D. with the writings of the earliest Church Fathers, we find a Church in many ways very different from that in the days of Peter and Paul.''2

"The scanty and suspicious materials of ecclesiastical history seldom enable us to dispel the dark cloud that hangs over the first age of the Church."3

"What happened during this time? Obviously, it was a time of many heresies. The Church Fathers come on the scene in the second century to tell us vociferously who the heretics were and where the 'orthodox Church' was. These men claimed to be the followers of the apostles, but their theology was different and seemed to blend Hellenistic philosophy and Babylonian religious custom with Christianity.

It was certainly a far different theology from that of the Jerusalem Church which Paul said he had taught the Gentiles to follow (Acts 15:2, 22-28; 1 Thessalonians 2:14). It is interesting that the descendants of the Jerusalem Church, the Nazarenes, were labeled as heretics and persecuted for their regard of the Mosaic law when they were merely carrying on the tradition of the Church of Peter and James.''4

A lot of the details of first-century apostolic worship have been lost to history. However, we do know from the Bible and from history what the Nazarenes generally believed about Yeshua, about Paul, and about the Written Torah and Oral Torah. They believed in Yeshua's virgin birth, His divinity, and His resurrection. They recognized Paul as a legitimate apostle and accepted his writings. They believed that the Written Torah should still be followed, but they viewed the Oral Torah as a "very burdensome yoke of Jewish traditions.' 5 Jerome tells us how the Nazarenes understood the prophecy about [Yahshua] ministering in the land of Naphtali" in Isaiah 9:1: "The Nazoreans venture to explain this passage as: When [Messiah] came and His preaching was glittering especially the land of Naphtali was delivered from the errors of the scribes and Pharisees, and He struck off from its neck the very burdensome yoke of Jewish traditions.''6

Some man-made Jewish traditions are harmless. Some are actually helpful, and can be used in a meaningful way to affirm our faith in the Messiah. If a Jewish tradition is not contrary to the Scriptures, it is permissible. However, just because a tradition is permissible and Jewish does not necessarily mean that it has some intrinsic value for believers in the Messiah. If Jewish traditions become a burdensome yoke, then we need to let the glittering Word of [Yahshua] strike them off from our necks.

As a congregational leader, I use this three-pronged diagram to show why our congregation exists.

The two greatest commandments are to love [Yahweh] and to love our fellow man. We love [Yahweh] by worshipping and obeying Him. We love our fellow man by edifying him if he's saved and evangelizing him if he's lost. When we assemble together on the Sabbath, the things we do together as a congregation should somehow relate to our congregation's three-fold purpose.

With these thoughts in mind, I began to question the value of extrabiblical Jewish traditions some months ago. First, their value in regards to worship. Some Jewish liturgical traditions can be used for worship, but is this the best way to worship the Father? [Yahshua] said that the Father seeks true worshippers who will worship in Spirit and in Truth. The Spirit can be quenched by too much prescribed liturgy. Truth is not upheld by uttering Jewish blessings that affirm the authority of the rabbis' man-made traditions.

What about edifying the saints? Do man-made Jewish traditions edify the saints? Some of the traditions can, especially if they affirm our faith in [Yahshua] as the Messiah. But are Jewish traditions the best way to edify the saints? The Bible speaks of other ways to build up the saints. Jude wrote about "building up yourselves on your most holy faith [by] praying in the Holy Ghost" (Jude 20). Paul said, "Knowledge puffeth up, but love edifieth" (1 Cor. 8:1). The text of 1 Corinthians 14 speaks about edifying the saints by prophesying, by tongues and interpretations, and by other gifts that spontaneously flow as the Holy Spirit moves among the congregation. So it appears that the saints will be edified more by prayer, love, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit than they will be by Jewish traditions.

How about evangelizing the lost? Do Jewish traditions help draw unsaved visitors to the Savior? Or do the Jewish traditions alienate them? Jewish traditions might help Jewish visitors feel more comfortable and at home, but the traditions can alienate, intimidate, and bore non-Jewish visitors. I know, because some visitors to our congregation have expressed such responses, even though the Hebrew liturgy was minimal and an English translation was provided. Furthermore, there have been times when even I have felt bored by too much Jewish liturgy. And I understand the Hebrew.

It is for these reasons that I decided to reduce the amount of Hebrew prayers and liturgy in our weekly Sabbath meetings. We still do the Shema ("Hear O Israel...") and the v'ahavta ("And thou shalt love..."). The Shema reminds us that our [Elohim] is Yahweh and He is echad (one). The v'ahavta reminds us that His Torah is encapsulated in His two greatest commandments. Both of these declarations are straight from Scripture, as is the Aaronic Benediction that we use to close our Sabbath service.

We will probably continue to use some additional blessings and traditions for the celebration of the more formal events like Passover and Yom Kippur. But for our regular weekly Sabbath meetings, our Hebrew liturgy has been reduced, because I believe it was irrelevant and counterproductive to our three-fold purpose of worship, edification, and evangelism. Some of our people were using the liturgy as a substitute for spontaneous, Spirit-led worship, uttering no words of worship except for the blessings that were recited by rote (routine). Some of our visitors felt alienated and uncomfortable with the unfamiliar Hebrew liturgy. Furthermore, several of our own people admitted in a survey that they were not edified by it. In an anonymous survey, I asked our people for suggestions for ways to improve our Sabbath services. Several people suggested that we reduce the amount of the rabbinic, the ritualistic, the liturgical, and the traditional. The results of this survey confirmed what I had been sensing for some time. So we reduced the Hebrew liturgy and made more room for Spirit-led praise and prayer and for the spontaneous moving of the Holy Spirit. So far, the results have been wonderful.

I am not suggesting that all Messianic believers must discard all Jewish traditions and liturgy. However, we should be aware of why the rabbis fixed and standardized the prayers and put them in a Siddur (prayer book). Rabbi Jeffery Cohen, author of Blessed Are You: A Comprehensive Guide to Jewish Prayer, tells when and how and why the Jewish prayers were standardized. Rabban Gamaliel II of Yavneh (A.D. 80-110) was the rabbi primarily responsible for the standardization of Jewish prayers. According to Jeffery Cohen, there were three main reasons Gamaliel wanted to standardize the prayers:

"First, he realized that, with the Temple in ruins, a new spiritual impetus was required, one which the synagogue and daily worship could best provide. Second, his period witnessed an upsurge of Christian missionary activity, coinciding with the composition of the Gospels and their dissemination among Jewish communities ....

"Gamaliel was constantly pestered by minim, members of the new faith who delighted in engaging him in disputation; and he was especially alarmed at the infiltration of new Christians (sic), indistinguishable at that time from their fellow Judean Jews, pressing their prayers and literature onto an unsuspecting Jewry. The simple, uneducated folk could not be expected to distinguish whether a religious text left in a synagogue was Orthodox or sectarian.

Neither, given the flexibility and spontaneity allowed in the framing of prayers, could they know whether one called upon to act as reader was a secret adherent of the new faith and was uttering acceptable able or unacceptable religious sentiment: Hence Gamaliel's decision to establish, once and for all, a fixed and authorized order of daily prayer ....

"Gamaliel's third reason may have been his wish to stem the disturbing fashion of charismatic or ecstatic prayer that was becoming fashionable among those early Christians and was appealing even to some of his own colleagues and disciples. In the absence of a fixed and regulated liturgy, they were emboldened to give expression to their own, often wild, outpouring of exaggerated body language and meaningless phraseology, claiming that it was the Spirit that was working on them ....

"In the light of this potentially dangerous trend--especially given the corresponding spread of mystical and ecstatic prayer in Christian circles--Gamaliel may have felt further impelled to introduce the discipline and rational spirit of an officially sanctioned and statutory order of service?"7

The above information was not written by someone antagonistic toward Jewish tradition; it was written by a non-Messianic Jewish rabbi. Nor is the above information taken from some fringe publication. It is taken from a book published by Jason Aronson, Inc., a Jewish publisher described in the Forward as a "famed publisher" that "publishes many books by current and former Y.U. [Yeshiva University] professors,''8 This information shows that the three reasons for standardizing Jewish prayers were as follows:

1. To provide a cohesive, fixed form of worship to preserve the unity which had formerly been preserved by Temple worship.

2. To prevent Messianic Jews from uttering any prayers except those prayers which were pre-approved by the unbelieving rabbis.

3. To quench the moving of the Holy Spirit which was being manifested through the Spirit-led prayers of Messianic Jews.

So two of the three reasons the Jewish liturgy was sanctioned and ordered by rabbis who rejected [Yahshua] was 1 ) to prevent Messianic prayers, and 2) to quench the spontaneity of Messianic worshippers, Why should today's Messianic believers follow a liturgy that was deliberately composed to prevent Messianic worship? If today's Messianic believers limit their worship to what is found in the Jewish liturgy, they will utter no prayers that honor [Yahshua] as Messiah, and the moving of the Holy Spirit will be quenched. They will not be worshipping the Father in Spirit nor in Truth.

The most important things to happen when we gather on the Sabbath are 1 ) that the Father be loved and worshipped in Spirit and in Truth; 2) that the saints be loved and edified; 3) that the lost be loved and drawn to the Savior. For these things to happen, there needs to be a loving atmosphere where the Holy Spirit is welcome and free to move among us, in the members of the body. Too much tradition and ritual and liturgy can quench and limit the moving of the Spirit.

"But what about Jewish visitors who might show up?" some ask. "Romans 11:11 says we're supposed to provoke the Jews to jealousy. Shouldn't we conduct our Sabbath services like the synagogue for their sake?" Hebrew liturgy and Jewish traditions and rituals might make a Jewish visitor feel more comfortable but these are not the things that will provoke him to jealousy. A person can only jealously desire something that he doesn't have. A Jewish person already has the traditions and rituals in the synagogue. A Jewish person will not be provoked to jealousy because we have his traditions and rituals; he will be provoked to jealousy because we have his Messiah. We need the presence of the Messiah, manifested by the moving of the Holy Spirit. That is the thing that will draw lost Jews and non-Jews to their Savior, edify the saints, and inspire Spirit-led worship. This is what the Father is after, and this is what I am after.

End Notes

1. Artscroll/ Siddur, 3rd ed., ed. R. Nosson Scherman (New York: Mesorah Publ., 2002), 441.

2. Hudbut, Storyofthe Christian Church, p. 41. Quoted in Dan Rogers, "The Historic Phenomena and Theology of the Nazarenes and Ebionites," Giving & Sharing Newsletter No. 74, Feb. 2004, 1 6f.

3. Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (New York: Random House), ch. 15, p. 382. Quoted in Dan Rogers' article.

4. Rogers, p. 17

5. See Dan Rogers article and Ray Pritz, Nazarene Jewish Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1988).

6. Rogers, p. 18.

7. Rabbi Jeffery Cohen, Blessed Are You: A Comprehensive Guide to Jewish Prayer (Northvale, NJ/London: Jason Aronson Inc., 1993), 35-37.

8. "Aronson To Sell Division," Forward, 20 Feb. 2004, Newsdesk, p. 3.

Reprinted from "Gates of Eden" newsletter. (Hebrew Names and Titles restored in brackets throughout.) "Gates of Eden" is published bimonthly. If you would tike to receive a sample copy, please write to Gates of Eden, P.O. Box 2257, East Peoria, IL, 61611-0257, or you may contact the ministry through its Web site at http://www. gatesofeden.org.

 
 


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