‘Torah is the mysterious bridge which connects the Jew and God, across which they interact and communicate, and by means of which God fulfils his covenant with his people to sustain them and protect them.’ (1)
So says Rabbi Shraga Simmons in an article on the Aish website about Shavuoth, the Jewish festival of Pentecost, which according to Judaism commemorates the time when God gave the Torah to Israel. He also tells us that:
- At Mount Sinai when the Torah was given, the entire Jewish nation – 3 million men, women and children – ‘directly experienced divine revelation’.
- In addition to the written Torah God gave the Oral Torah, which in fact preceded the written Torah.
- One reason why dairy foods are eaten at Shavuoth is found in the Biblical book Song of Songs (4:11) which refers to the sweet nourishing value of Torah by saying: ‘It drips from your lips, like honey and milk under your tongue.’
- On the night of Shavuoth it is a widespread custom to stay up all night learning Torah. And since Torah is the way to self-perfection, the Shavuoth night learning is called Tikkun Leil Shavuoth, which means ‘an act of self-perfection on the night of Shavuoth.’ (1)
Let us examine these statements.
Direct revelation or divine mediation?
Did the entire Jewish nation ‘directly experience divine revelation’? Rabbi Simmons bases this claim on this verse from Deuteronomy:
God spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you were hearing the sound of words, but you were not seeing a form, only a sound. He told you of his covenant, instructing you to keep the Ten Commandments, and he inscribed them on two stone tablets. Deuteronomy 4:12-13
However the following verse shows that Moses was the mediator through whom God gave the Torah to Israel:
And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that you might observe them in the land which you cross over to possess. Deuteronomy 4.14
This section of Deuteronomy retells the events that took place 40 years earlier at Sinai for the benefit of the generation that survived the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and were about to enter the Promised Land.
In the Exodus account of the Torah actually being given to the generation that came out of Egypt, the emphasis is on the separation of the people from Mount Sinai and from the encounter Moses had with the Lord:
‘And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And when the blast of the trumpet sounded long and became louder and louder, Moses spoke and God answered him by voice. Then the Lord came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down and warn the people lest they break through to gaze at the Lord and many of them perish. … But Moses said to the Lord, ‘The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai: for you warned us saying, ‘Set bounds around the mountain and consecrate it. Then the Lord said to him, ‘Away! Get down and then come up, you and Aaron with you. But do not let the priests and the people come up to the Lord, lest he break against them.’ Exodus 19.17-23.
‘Now all the people witnessed the thunderings and the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off. Then they said to Moses, ‘You speak with us and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.’ Exodus 20.18-20.
These passages show that the communication of God’s commandments did not come directly to Israel but through the chosen mediator, Moses. In fact far from being able to come ‘straight to the boss’, God denied access into his presence to all but a handful of chosen and sanctified men. Moses in particular acted as the mediator through whom God spoke to the rest of the people.
The need for a mediator is even clearer in Leviticus 16 where we read of the elaborate ritual involving sacrifices made for his own sins and the sins of the people which the High Priest was required to make before he could enter into the Holy of Holies to offer sacrifices. The reason for this was that the presence of the Lord dwelt in the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle and in the Temple and if the High Priest failed to make the sacrifices correctly he risked being struck dead on entry into this place.
What about the Oral Torah?
According to Rabbi Simmons the Oral Torah preceded the Written Torah. It is believed that when God gave the written word to Israel he also gave the Oral Torah, which was not written down but passed on by word of mouth from generation to generation, eventually to be codified in the Rabbinic writings known as the Mishna and the Gemara compiled in the Palestinian Talmud around 400 CE and the Babylonian Talmud around 500 CE.
Rabbi Simmons writes: ‘The Oral Torah is not an interpretation of the Written Torah. In fact, the Oral Torah preceded the Written Torah. When the Jewish people stood at Mount Sinai 3,300 years ago, God communicated the 613 commandments, along with a detailed, practical explanation of how to fulfil them. At that point in time, the teachings were entirely oral. It wasn’t until 40 years later, just prior to Moses’ death and the Jewish people entering the Land of Israel, that Moses wrote the scroll of the written Torah (known as the Five Books of Moses) and gave it to the Jewish people.’ (2)
Admittedly we do not have any detailed record of how the Torah came to be written down, but at the same time we have no mention in the Bible of the existence of an oral Torah separate from the written Torah. Here is something very strange. If God had given Moses both the written and the oral Torah surely something would have been mentioned in the written Torah pointing to the existence of this other teaching, which was necessary to understand the written Torah. But what do we find? Not a word about it.
In fact we find evidence to the contrary. It is hard to see how Rabbi Simmons can justify the statement that the oral Torah preceded the written Torah when Exodus 24 says ‘Moses wrote all the words of the Lord. … Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read in hearing of the people.’ Exodus 24.4-7. According to the text this happened immediately after Moses came down from the Mountain.
Moreover the Book of Joshua tells us that Joshua (to whom Moses is supposed to have communicated the unwritten oral Torah) possessed a written word, which he read to the people of Israel as they entered the Land. This written word contained all that Moses had passed down:
‘And afterward he (Joshua) read all the words of the law, the blessings and the cursings, according to all that is written in the Book of the law. There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel with the women, the little ones and the strangers who were living among them.’ Joshua 8.34-35.
It is hard to reconcile these verses with the idea of an unwritten oral Torah, which precedes the written Torah and is equally inspired given by God at Mount Sinai.
In the practice of modern Judaism the oral Torah in the form of the Talmud becomes equally important or even more important than the word of God in the Bible. If the Talmud is the word of God that is fine. But if not, then we have a serious problem. It means that rather than hearing direct from God through his word, Jewish people have it filtered through human traditions passed down from generation to generation which obscure its meaning. It means that human tradition and teaching become more important than the Word of God, exactly the same problem as we have in the Roman Catholic Church. As a result things are believed to be the will of God which have no foundation at all in the Bible, but which originate in human teachings which are given equal weight to the Word of God.
In conversations with Orthodox Jewish people I have found that there are many things that are commonly believed which actually have little or no foundation in the Bible and some which actually contradict it. For example the whole elaborate system of separating milk and meat products is based on a very flimsy foundation in the Bible. In the London Borough of Barnet where I live there has been great controversy concerning the setting up of an ‘eruv’ (3), by placing a wire surrounding the Jewish neighbourhoods of Golders Green, Finchley and Hendon. Within the boundaries of this it is permitted to carry things or use push chairs on the Sabbath. I can find nothing in the Bible which suggests that this wire has any significance in the eyes of God.
I have been told by many Orthodox Jews that God offered the Torah to all the nations of the world and they refused and then he offered it to the Jewish people and they accepted. The Torah actually states the opposite, that God chose the Jewish people of his own sovereign will for his purposes to be made known to the earth:
‘For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for himself, as a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth. The Lord did not set his love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all the peoples; but because the Lord loves you, and because he would keep his oath which he swore to your fathers, the Lord your God has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh King of Egypt.’ Deuteronomy 6.6-8.
Placing emphasis on the Talmud also means that Jewish people are discouraged to read the Bible for themselves and to seek God for its meaning. On one occasion when I was working as a teacher at the Hasmonean School I was sitting in a classroom during the lunch hour on my own reading Isaiah in my Bible. An orthodox boy came in and saw what I was doing and was quite shocked. ‘We would never sit down and read the Bible like that,’ he said. ‘You have to read it with the commentaries, otherwise you cannot understand it.’
The Bible is the greatest gift the Jewish people have given to the world. God who inspired its authors by the Holy Spirit is able to give the interpretation of it by the same Holy Spirit to those who ask him today.
Is the Torah bitter or sweet?
It is true that the Torah has sweet nourishing value to those who study it. As David wrote in Psalm 19.7-11:
‘The Law of the Lord is perfect converting the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure making wise the simple; the statutes of the Lord are right rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean enduring forever; the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold yea than much fine gold; sweeter also than the honey and the honeycomb. Moreover by them is thy servant warned and in keeping of them there is great reward.’ See also Psalm 119.
Yet there is another side to the Torah. The people responded to the words, which Moses had written down and read to them by saying ‘All that the Lord has said we will do and be obedient (Exodus 24.7)’. Yet not long afterwards they were worshipping the Golden Calf, causing God to move in judgement against them:
‘And the Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people and behold it is a stiff-necked people! Now therefore let me alone that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. And I will make of you a great nation. (Exodus 32.9-10)’
Without Moses acting as the mediator on this occasion God would have destroyed the entire nation as a judgement. Even with Moses’ mediation, 3000 perished as a result of this sin.
In the summing up of the Torah in Deuteronomy 28, God tells Israel of the blessings which result from obedience to the Torah as they enter the land, but also warns of the curses (judgements) which result from disobedience. The last of these is to be scattered from the land and live ‘with a trembling heart, failing eyes and anguish of soul’ (Deut 28.65) amongst the Gentile nations. The history of Israel written in the Bible tells of the outworking of this principle in the blessings in the land at times of obedience and the judgements following disobedience. The bitter side of the Torah is to be found in these judgements.
Is the Torah the bridge to God?
The bitter side of the Torah shows us the gulf, which separates us from God. On the other hand Rabbi Simmons claims that studying Torah all night at the time of Shavuoth is ‘an act of self-perfection.’
But the Bible shows that no person can reach self-perfection by his own efforts. In Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 7.20 we read, ‘There is not a just man on the earth who does good and does not sin.’
Isaiah 64.6 tells us ‘We are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; we all fade as the leaf and our iniquities like the wind have taken us away.’
Human experience testifies to the truth of this and religious people of all faiths often lead the way in putting people off from believing in God by the gulf between what they claim for themselves and what they actually do.
One of the accusations brought against Jesus in the quotation from Maimonides in chapter 4 is that he caused the ‘Torah to be altered.’ Clearly Christians are not for the most part keeping Jewish festivals and the kosher food laws today. One has to agree that the New Testament downplays these as being a requirement for believers. According to Romans 14 it is very much up to individual conscience what a person does in this regard. Many Jewish believers in Jesus do feel that they should keep the biblical kosher food laws, however it is clear that the New Testament writers did not make this an issue which in any way affected a person’s standing with God.
Because the emphasis in the New Testament is on taking the message of Jesus to the nations of the world it would have been difficult for the Jewish disciples in Jesus who were doing this to keep the kosher food laws and the Sabbath laws. They had to mingle with pagan people and eat with them in order to share their message with them. In Acts 11 we read how Peter was rebuked by the Jerusalem church for eating with ‘uncircumcised men’. This issue was resolved by the Apostolic council in Acts 15 in which it was decided that Gentiles coming to faith in Jesus should not eat food ‘polluted by idols’ or with its blood in it (Acts 15.20), but beyond this no obligation to eat kosher was placed upon them.
On the other hand the emphasis in Judaism since the fall of the Temple and the dispersion into the nations has been to keep the Jewish people separate from non Jews in order to prevent inter marriage and absorption into the predominant Gentile community. Keeping kosher and the Sabbath has been a major way for Jewish communities in the Diaspora to keep their identity separate from the mainstream of society.
It can be argued that modern Judaism has missed some major points of the Torah in its emphasis. I was talking to some ultra Orthodox Jews in Stamford Hill, London, with a friend who is a Jewish believer in Jesus. The main accusation which came against my friend was that he did not keep all the kosher food regulations. ‘Do you eat chometz (food containing leaven) at Pesach (Passover)?’ was the big question he was asked.
When my friend said he did not keep strictly to the Rabbinic regulations of not eating leaven during Passover, they blamed his faith in Jesus for what they considered to be a great sin. This was not really fair, since he did not keep these regulations before he believed in Jesus. Of course he is not alone in this, as the majority of Jewish people do not keep all the rules of Orthodox Judaism.
It is also significant that so many of these rules have to do with the kitchen rather than the whole of life. In particular the rabbinic interpretation of the verse ‘You shall not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk’ (Exodus 23.19) has come to mean you must not eat milk and meat in the same meal or even off the same plates and cutlery. In context this verse is more likely to be about pagan fertility rituals involving cooking an animal in its mother’s milk. It is hard to believe the Creator of the Universe is seriously concerned about whether a tiny minority of people on earth eat meat off plates which might have a trace of cheese on them, when vast numbers of people on earth have neither meat nor cheese to eat and no plates to eat off!
The heart of God’s revelation of himself in the Bible is a concern for righteousness and justice on earth, not minutiae of kitchen regulations, as has become the preoccupation of many of the rules for living applied by modern Judaism. As we read in Micah 5.8, ‘He has shown you O man what is good: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’
The prophets reveal that God’s aim for Israel is to be a light to the Gentiles (Isaiah 49.6) and to declare the difference between the idols of paganism and the one true God of Israel (Isaiah 45.18-25). The promise to Abraham in Genesis 12.3 is: ‘I will bless those who bless you and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ From the very beginning of choosing Abraham as the father of the Jewish people God had a purpose that his descendants should be a blessing to all the nations of the earth.
In Deuteronomy 28.10-13 we read that God promises that if Israel is obedient to the Lord, ‘Then all the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the Lord and they shall be afraid of you. … The Lord will open his good treasure the heavens to give rain in its season and to bless all the work of your hand. You shall lend to many nations but you shall not borrow. And the Lord will make you the head and not the tail; you shall be above and not beneath, if you heed the commandments of the Lord your God.’
The picture here is of the Gentile nations seeing what God has done for Israel and receiving blessing from Israel and therefore wanting to know about the God of Israel. We see that happening in the beginning of the reign of King Solomon, but sadly the history of Israel since then has been one of decline, ultimately experiencing the scattering into the Gentile nations as a judgement in accordance with the rest of the chapter in Deuteronomy 28.15-68.
The professing Christian church too has failed God as outlined in the first chapter of this book. But however much false Christians have misrepresented their Saviour, true believers in Jesus have gone into all the world to bring blessing to the nations. It was Christian missionaries to India, led by William Carey, who campaigned against the horrible practice of ‘sati’ whereby the widow of a Hindu man who died was burned alive on his funeral pyre. It was Bible believing Christians like William Wilberforce and John Newton who fought for the abolition of slavery in the 19th century. Christian missionaries like David Livingstone brought medicine and education to African tribes and sought to free them from bondage to witch doctors and superstition. Above all Bible believing Christians have translated the Bible into the major languages of the world, as a result of which there are people today from China to South America who know about Abraham, Moses, David and the Hebrew Prophets as a result of their faith in Jesus. From the point of view of God, which activities are more important – not eating meat off a plate which is for milk products only or giving people the Bible to read and freeing them from slavery?
If we want to be really picky we can show that modern Judaism also fails to keep a number of commands given in the Torah. It is interesting to read on the Aish website the list of 613 commandments as recorded and classified by Maimonides. (4) This listing is taken from his classic compendium of Jewish law, the ‘Mishneh Torah.’ Numbers 301 to 442 are all to do with the Temple and sacrifices and cannot be kept literally by anyone today. In defence of this it is argued that if the Temple did stand the sacrifices would be kept, but it is clear that a religion has developed which has no need of these sacrifices and has no Levitical priesthood. Therefore well over 100 of the 613 commandments are not kept by Jewish people anywhere in the world today. Nor have they been for nearly 2000 years.
According to Rabbinic opinion Numbers 596-8 no longer apply because the nations referred to have already disappeared. This is just as well because they read: 596 ‘Destroy the seven Canaanite nations. 597 Not to let any of them remain alive. 598 Wipe out the descendants of Amalek.’ Numbers 37- 41 as listed on the Aish website are also rather unfriendly! 37 ‘Not to love the missionary. 38 Not to cease hating the missionary. 39 Not to save the missionary. 40 Not say anything in his defence. 41 Not to refrain from incriminating him.’
Even leaving these out, the commands which clearly are relevant today are hard if not impossible to keep. How many people can read the 10 commandments and honestly say, ‘I have never broken one of these’? Even if we do not steal do we never covet another person’s possessions, lifestyle or family? If we do then we are breaking one of the 10 commandments. Who really fulfils the command to love God ‘with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength’ (Deuteronomy 6.5 – number 4 in the 613 commandments)?
It is interesting that on the Aish website the command, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19.18 – number 13 in the 613 commandments) becomes ‘to love Jews’ (i.e. not a general command to love your neighbour whoever he / she is, but only if he / she is Jewish). When we come to the New Testament this was the very issue which Jesus commented on in his best-known parable, the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25-37). To interpret the command to love your neighbour as meaning you should love your fellow Jew is to reduce the God of the Bible to being a tribal deity of the Jewish people, not the God of the whole world.
If no one is able to keep all of these commandments, those who seek salvation by this method are left in a state of condemnation. As we have said our failure to keep God’s commandments shows the gulf, which separates us from God and our need of a mediator to bridge this gulf. This is why God promised that he would make a new covenant with the house of Israel, not because he found fault with the old one, but because of the impossibility of keeping it. Concerning this new covenant we read in Jeremiah:
‘Behold the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people. No more shall every man teach his neighbour and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity and their sin I will remember no more.’ Jeremiah 31.31-34.
The New Covenant.
According to this passage the new covenant offers forgiveness of sin, knowledge of God in a personal way and having God’s law written on the heart. This will replace the covenant given at Sinai as the means by which God relates to humanity (i.e. the bridge to God). When Jesus took the bread and the wine on the eve of Pesach (Passover) he described the cup containing the wine as ‘the new covenant in my blood which is shed for you (Luke 22.20).’ In doing this he reinterpreted the familiar symbols, which speak of the Exodus from physical slavery in Egypt applying them to himself as the Passover Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. He brings about our Exodus from spiritual slavery in a world, which has fallen from God’s commandments and is in bondage to sin.
In his letter to believers in Messiah, living in Galatia, Paul described the Torah as ‘our tutor to bring us to Messiah, that we might be justified by faith’ (Galatians 3.24). By this he meant that the Torah shows us that we cannot achieve ‘self perfection’ and that there is a huge gulf between what God requires and what we achieve. It was for this reason that I turned to the Messiah on January 1st 1970 when I realised that I had broken God’s commandments and was under his judgement.
The Torah shows us that we all fall short of the glory of God and need to be made right with God by repentance and faith in the sacrifice God has appointed. Under the old covenant this was through the blood of the animals offered on Yom Kippur. Under the new covenant it is through the blood of the Messiah. In this way Messiah Jesus becomes our bridge to God, fulfilling His word, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me (John 14.6).’
When speaking to a learned rabbi of his day, Nicodemus, Yeshua said that in order to enter into this new covenant ‘You must be born again’ (John 3.7) – not physically but spiritually, an experience also prophesied in Ezekiel:
‘I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you. I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you and cause you to walk in my judgements and you will keep my judgements and do them (Ezekiel 36.26-7).’
Just as the covenant at Sinai had to be mediated through God’s chosen servant, Moses, so the new covenant had to be mediated through ‘a Prophet like Moses’ (Deuteronomy 18.15-18). Isaiah reveals that this one would be more than a prophet. Although he would be born as a child, ‘His name will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’ (Isaiah 9.6).
As we have seen in chapter 6, Isaiah went on to describe how this anointed Servant of the Lord would be put to death for the sins of the people: ‘All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. … For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken (Isaiah 53.6, 8).’
Yeshua, Jesus, is the Messiah of whom Moses and the Prophets spoke, who has mediated the new covenant through which we can find the true bridge to God. Through his death and resurrection he has paid the price required for sin and made it possible for all humanity, Jewish and Gentile, to come to know God’s forgiveness and eternal life. Those who truly accept him as Messiah, Saviour and Lord experience the new birth which Jesus spoke about to Nicodemus which empowers us by the Holy Spirit to walk in newness of life and gives us the desire to keep his commandments. Although we remain liable to sin and fall short of the glory of God, the blood Jesus shed is sufficient to cover our sins and to give us peace with God so that we know that when we appear before God on the Day of Judgment he will receive us into eternal life in heaven.
- The ABC of Shavuoth. aish.com/holidays/shavuot
- What is Oral Torah? Aish ha Torah’s Discovery Seminar. Aish.com
- ‘Eruv’, a Hebrew word meaning ‘mixture’ is a rabbinic device which permits the relaxation of prohibitions against carrying objects on the Sabbath outside the home. It involves putting a boundary around an area which then is considered as an extension. In the case of the north London eruv a wire has been placed on connected poles to mark out the area within which Orthodox Jews are permitted to carry objects or push wheelchairs outside their homes on the Sabbath.
- The 613 Commandments. Aish.com