Rabbinical Judaism begins with three simple directives: ”Be moderate in judgement, and raise up many students, and make a fence around the Torah.” The most difficult thing for a Christian to understand about Judaism is its concern with legal process, guided by a profound rationalism. Humans need rules. These rules need to be interpreted, applied, developed in new contexts. Laws formulated to guide a coalition of early Iron Age tribes are not likely to be easily or directly applied to say, a religiously distinct community in a multi-ethnic empire (Judah, first century; Persia, fifth century, etc.). The rabbis claimed the authorization to interpret that earlier body of instructions—Torah—and developed a body of legal texts, categorized as halakha, from the second century onward.
This authorization was found in a train of oral transmission, collectively known as the Oral Torah:
- Moshe received the Torah at Sinai,
- And he transmitted it to Yehoshua, [Joshua]
- And Yehoshua to the Elders
- And the Elders to the Prophets
- And the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly.
Halakhic reasoning is at its heart reasoning about holiness: the rabbis sought to expand the range and clarity of the rules guiding the search for holiness. How can men be set apart, belonging to G-d, ready to serve him in all things? Holiness was the purview of priests, who determined if a man was pure enough to approach G-d with a sacrifice, if the sacrifice met the requirements. But with the destruction of the temple, sacrifice came into the home. The purity rules that previously guided life at the temple now became interpreted to apply to everyday life. Thus, the rabbis saw themselves as fulfilling the ancient directive that all Israelites are to be priests unto G-d:
4 Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto Myself. 5 Now therefore, if ye will hearken unto My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be Mine own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine; 6 and ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.’ 7 And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which HaShem commanded him. (Exodus 19)
Christianity, of course, claims to be continuing that call: 1 Peter summoned Christians to be a “a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices,” a “a royal priesthood, a holy nation”.
But Jesus had already fundamentally transformed the meaning of holiness. In Mark 7, Pharisees—generally viewed as the predecessors of the rabbis—and “scribes,” professional readers/writers, who thereby knew the content of the law, came up from Jerusalem to check out Jesus. What was this country hick preacher in Galilee teaching? Why was he attracting people? Was his instruction consistent with the practice of the best religious authorities?
In short, no. They immediately noticed that Jesus’ “disciples” (i.e., “students” in the above quote from the Mishnah) were not washing their hands before eating. From the Pharisees’ standpoint, such behavior was unsurprising among uneducated rustics. They regularly stigmatized average people who could not live up to their own high standards of pure living as am ha’aretz—“people of the land.” Such people lacked either the leisure or material resources, or both, to avoid contact with substances that made them impure, and in turn to engage in the frequent purification rituals that would then render them pure in their lives and worship.
By all accounts, Jews in first-century Palestine were especially concerned with determining and maintaining boundaries of purity. Mark himself mentions the “washing of cups and pitchers and copper vessels” (some texts include “dining couches”). We also know of the large-scale manufacture of massive stone vessels for the storage of water. Stone, unlike clay pottery, could not be “contaminated” by contact of something “impure”, and therefore would not have to be destroyed before being reused. (The existence of such vessels is attested in John 2:6.) In sum, maintaining purity was a central and essential concern of the religiously committed Jew in the first century.
Jesus’ response to the objections is brusque. Food or liquid cannot contaminate a person. It does not enter “the heart,” but the stomach, and is then expelled. It is not what goes into a person that contaminates him spiritually, but what comes out. And what comes out is not physical (feces), but spiritual—“evil thought...coveting...sensuality.”
However, this answer does not solve the moral problematic of first-century Judaism, indeed, of any religious practice with a concern for purity. Jews knew ever since the promulgation of the Ten Commandments that right action is not merely physical, but spiritual, since the final commandment states the same warning, “do not covet.” This puts the lie to the popular Christian claim that Jesus grasped an internal meaning of the law, that the Torah itself did not have.
Purity rituals understand that human beings are transformed by habitual action. Kosher develops in a Jew the consciousness that food is not merely physical, but itself a spiritual reality. As one gives up, say, shrimp, for no other reason than that G-d commands it, one develops the profoundly spiritual traits of obedience to G-d’s will, attentiveness to the spiritual consequences of the most mundance of acts, humility before what one does not understand or what one cannot give a rational explanation for. Most simply: purity is the concrete path to sanctification, a life shaped by obedience of G-d in every moment of life.
But what guidance does Jesus’ directive give a Christian—assuming that was what he was trying to give? Don’t have evil thoughts. I can’t dislike Obama (or, Bush, as the case may be). Darn. Don’t covet a new laptop (MacBook Air, thank you very much). Fiddlesticks. Deceit. Don’t pretend to hold a political position for expediency. Rats. Sensuality. Don’t enjoy a piece of cheesecake, much less sex. Bummer. No wonder I became religiously neurotic as a boy.
It is impossible to keep Jesus’ halakha. More exactly, he was deconstructing every effort to create an halakha out of his instruction. I was making this point in Jesus the political pundit. Since no-one apparently was paying attention, I’ll repeat my conclusion:
In Jesus’ teachings at least, there is no halakhic definition of neighbor. I am the neighbor. There is no possible equation between the love I give myself, and the love I give my neighbor, whoever he may be. There is no equation, because there is only one term. There is the pure positive command: “I must love.”
The mere fact that the Christians in the debate missed the point shows the moral instability of a kingdom in which love fulfills every mitzvah. How does love become enfleshed in life? The kingdom of priests, to which our Jewish friends have been called, gives one model. We goyim do not stand with them beneath the Torah’s awe-ful summons. We have a less strenuous but more confusing task: to always be on the way to Mt. Sinai, not yet having received the commandments, except the one command to love.
Judaism enfleshes a kingdom of priests. Christianity intends a kingdom of the spirit. Those are two fundamentally different tasks. We are both of the loins of Isaac, son of Abraham, but like Jacob and Esau continue to strive in the womb of this age, Olam haZeh. (In one Hasidic interpretation, Esau represents the one who tends to idolatry, and therefore has been given the task of “the conquest of evil.” We goyim are always pulled back into idolatry, and must conquer our evil impulses. In this task, we do not have the empowerment of the mitzvot, except one—to love.)
And the kingdom of priests, and the kingdom of the spirit, will continue to strive with each other until the kingdom, and Mashiach, come.