Occasionally I get very interested in the Jewish roots of Christianity. There have even been times in my life when I have thought, "What would it be like to live a Jewish life?" I have never very seriously considered conversion to Judaism, mind you, but I have long been interested in Judaism, both as its own faith tradition and as it relates to the foundations of the Christian faith. Often, as I begin to read about Judaism and how it relates to Christianity, I think about Jesus' statement in Matthew 5:17, "Do not think that I have come to destroy the law or the prophets. I have not come to destroy them but to fulfill them." (Lexham English Bible) So what does this mean for today's Christian, or for that matter, for Christians over the past twenty centuries? In short, sometimes I wonder, as Christians, why aren't we Torah-observant?
I've heard the usual arguments that are advanced in contemporary Christian tradition: that Jesus "nailed the Law to the cross," that we are saved by grace through faith, the argument of faith vs. works, and some pretty vague talk about ritual vs. moral law. But usually that doesn't get to the heart of the matter: Jesus and his disciples were, as far as I can tell from my reading of the New Testament, fairly Torah-observant 1st century Jews. (Oh sure, there are some little disputes between the early Christian movement and the Jewish establishment...accusations of Jesus and his followers breaking the Sabbath, and that type of thing.) As I understand it, there was never a point when the earliest Apostles stopped being Jewish. But as the Church grew and evolved, we lost Saturday observance of the Sabbath, and gave up on the vast majority of Old Testament law. Of course, I've heard the standard arguments (I've made them myself!): "Well...Jesus basically distilled the Ten Commandments down to the two most important ones--love of God and love of neighbor." Meanwhile, while Christians so often ignore much OT Law in their understanding of grace, there are still Christian groups that push for bringing the Ten Commandments back to the courtrooms, or harping on one or another particular OT law. (Very few Christians ever push for bringing back all 613 mitzvot that Maimonides identified...)
Then there are the various Messianic and "Hebrew roots" sects of Christianity. When I first heard about Jews for Jesus, I thought it was really a cool idea. After all, the earliest Christians were Jewish, so wouldn't a modern movement of Jewish Christians be a neat idea? These days I'm not so sure about that idea: it seems to me that Jews for Jesus is more interested in conversion of Jews, while retaining some of the trappings of "Jewishness" (use of Hebrew/Yiddish, familiar Jewish imagery, Jewish holidays, etc.). Then there's the "Hebrew roots" movement: I've met some of these folks, and they often seem to be fairly typical Christians who have appropriated much of the interesting parts of Jewish culture, without really seeing Judaism as a legitimate religion. (That's admittedly an over-simplification of the Hebrew roots movements, which actually seem to be quite varied in how they approach the similarities and differences between Judaism and Christianity.)
But back to my original thought: what does Torah mean for us Christians? Should we follow the Torah to the best of our ability, or should we acknowledge the differences between Christianity and Judaism? Also, is an attempt by Gentiles to be "Torah observant" actually an improper appropriation of Jewish culture, that fails to understand the whole basic foundation of the Jewish faith? I must admit, I don't really know all of the answers to these questions. I've read some pretty compelling arguments in favor of followers of Christ also following his observance of Torah, and I've read some compelling arguments against that stance, as well as several arguments that fall somewhere in the middle.
I suppose the bottom line for me, at least, is to take this interest and use it to more fully explore how I relate to God and my neighbor, in light of what I have learned about the entire history of Christianity, as well as the history of Judaism that came before it, and developed alongside it.
This morning, I was eating breakfast with my daughter, and a friendly man with a cross around his neck approached me, and asked if he could give me a tract. Mostly by reflex, I said, "Sure, I'll read it," and took it as he walked away. It was a completely innocuous Christian tract: the cover said something like "Are You Going to Heaven?" and inside were the standard Bible verses (English Standard Version). It was published by Crossway, so there was no ultra-fundamentalist stuff, a la Chick Tracts, or anything heretical, as you would find in a Jehovah's Witness tract. But it got me thinking, why did I even take this tract? I could have just said, "No need, man, I'm a Christian." Or even better, I could have invited him to sit down with us to talk. But I didn't. I glanced over it, and left it on the table, in hopes that someone else would discover it.
It makes me think, though. What is the actual effectiveness of these "tract ministries," where people just run around hnding tracts to everyone they bump into, without any sort of engagement? That's the thing: no one that I can think of who has just handed me a tract has ever stayed around to actually talk to me, to find out whether I agree or disagree with their theology. Even some Mormons, who are pretty persistent with their evangelism, have just handed me pamphlets before, with very little actual discussion. Is the theory that, every so often, someone is going to receive a tract at exactly the right time in their life, and immediately surrender to the witness of the Holy Spirit? Then what? Do they just go to the nearest church, and say, "Someone handed me a tract, and I need to start going to church"? It seems like the actual effectiveness of such "evangelism" would be pretty minuscule.
A few weeks ago, I had a nice little chat with some friendly Jehovah's Witnesses on my front porch. Now I don't agree with the vast majority of JW theology, but I had to appreciate the fact that they were willing to talk to me about their beliefs, without simply shoving a pamphlet into my hand and running away. There's a down side to it, of course. They'll probably see me as a potential convert, and they'll probably end up on my porch again someday. And I'll have to explain where we differ in our theology. And that's not always a comfortable conversation to have, but at least it is an actual conversation. Not just a "hit and run."
Another thing that's always bothered me about the tract evangelism thing is the assumption on the part of the person handing out tracts: they aren't bothering to find out if the person they're handing the tract to is already a Christian or not. They simply assume that everyone they bump into "out there" is a nonbeliever who needs to read the gospel. I guess they often figure, if the person is a Christian, they're not the right kind of Christian (since they're not out there handing out tracts). That bugs me, I admit. I'm not trying to toot my own horn when I say that I have probably studied the Bible a lot more than most of the people who hand me tracts. So before you hand me a tract, get to know me first.
In fact, before you begin to evangelize, why not read the way Jesus did it? I haven't read anywhere in the New Testament about Jesus and his disciples handing out tracts. He taught and preached, and healed people, and sat down at the table with them for food and fellowship. Sure, "the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few," but does that justify such an impersonal form of preaching the gospel? I appreciate the wish people have to get out there and share their faith, but are they actually sharing their faith, if they're handing someone a piece of paper, and then moving on? I doubt it. But then again, I'm sitting at a computer, sharing my thoughts, so can I judge too much? Probably not.
For the life of me, I haven't been able to figure out where the following quote comes from, but it's a fun, concise description of the relationship among Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism...
Think of it like a movie. The Torah is the first one, and the New Testament the sequel. Then the Qu’ran comes out, and it retcons the last one like it never happened. There’s still Jesus, but he’s not the main character anymore, and the messiah hasn’t shown up yet.
(adj.) wild and frenzied; from Greek κορυβαντες (Korybantes)