By Rabbi Greg Lehtimaki
At my synagogue we just had a Bar Mitzvah which is a coming-of-age ceremony for Jewish boys and girls, and it is a ceremony which marks the time when a boy or girl becomes a Jewish adult. This means that they are now responsible for their own actions and can decide for themselves how they would like to practice Judaism. Under Jewish Law, children are not obligated to observe the commandments, although they are encouraged to do so as much as possible to learn the obligations they will have as adults. At the age of 13 (12 for girls), children become obligated to observe the commandments.
I was once asked, well they phrased it more as a question... “I am interested in a truly halachic Messianic Judaism. However, I am inclined to believe that full Torah observance is not required for Gentiles. Halacha teaches that all that is incumbent on Gentiles are the seven commandments for the children of Noach (the Sheva Mitzvot B’nei Noach). How do you reconcile this?” Yeshua taught that all the Torah and Prophets are derived from two mitzvot, V’Ahavta et Adonai Eloheicha, and V’Ahavta L’Rei’acha Chamocha - To love Adonai your God and to love your neighbor as yourself. These two aren’t listed in any list of the Sheva Mitzvot (the most popular one being promoted by the Rambam). Yet this does not mean the Sheva Mitzvot do not exist as a standard by which the Gentiles are judged, nor does it mean that the Torah is not teaching a separate standard of holiness for a Jew compared to the nations. So, then my position on Gentiles and Torah is taken from the Torah, let me explain.
Just as Adonai did not force the Torah on the nations but rather gave it as a gift to those who would say “all that you say we will do,” I believe that the Torah should not be forced on any Gentile who does not want it, for one who is forced is not walking in love of Adonai. It is love of Adonai, we believe, that prevents one from engaging in avodah zarah (strange worship) (the first mitzvah of the Sheva Mitzvot in any list). Gentiles who engage in avodah zarah will be judged just as any Jew who does. The Torah is a beautiful gift, like a bride for her groom (as Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) puts it), and though is meant to be shared with the nations, it requires one to make the covenant commitment to be intimate with her and thus receive all that she offers. I believe that this commitment (conversion out of love for Adonai and his living Torah, the Mashiach) is one that one must make in order to be intimate with Torah, and is just another step of obedience in one’s walk of discipleship to the Yeshua – the Master Himself who models that intimacy with Torah for us, and who desires to live Torah through us every step of the Way. Therefore, I encourage nurturing one’s love for Adonai and the Messiah in order to draw one’s soul deeply to Torah and mitzvot, to which end the blessing, commitment, and responsibility of full conversion is offered to one who is not absolutely certain of their status as a Jew, as Israel; this then becomes just another step of full discipleship to Messiah Yeshua and identity with Israel.
At the same time, I discourage turning Torah into dogma against traditional Christianity, since such an approach to Torah does not draw people to Torah out of love for Adonai but chases them away in fear and condemnation. There is no condemnation to those in Messiah Yeshua, so therefore the Torah is truly offered as a gift in knowing Messiah intimately without fear, without condemnation, and in deep intimate love with Adonai and in what He desires for us as His beloved. Yet Torah is something a Gentile has to want before Adonai will separate them from the nations in order to serve Him. If a Gentile truly desires all that Adonai has for them through Torah and mitzvot, and also desires the special calling Adonai has for the Jewish people to teach Torah to the nations, then we should certainly offer them a speedy and sincere means to conversion to Messianic Judaism to help them fulfill that desire, to Adonai’s glory, and for the benefit of all.
Numbers 15:15, says, “Ha’Kahal Chuka Achat La’Khem Ve’La’Ger Ha’Gar Chukat Olam Le’DoroTeikem Ka’Khem Ka’Ger Yihyeh Lifnei Adonai.” - “The community will have the same rule for you as well as for the resident outsider. It will be a lasting statute throughout your generations. As for you, so for the outsider will it be before Adonai.” This is the middle verse of a block of three (14-16) verses that say, four times, in four different ways, that the law is the same for a citizen and a resident alien. Why the repetition and the differences? The first one (v. 14) speaks of an Israelite and a stranger who bring fire offerings to Adonai; all the fire offerings are brought in the same way. The second - the first part of our verse - says that there is only one law, not one for the Israelites and one for sojourners. The third - the second part of our text - states that both Israelites and strangers are held accountable in the same way by Adonai. Finally, the fourth instance (v. 16), confirms that the same rituals and rules of worship apply to Israelites and strangers living in our midst.
The text moves from the particular, fire offerings, to the general - one law, one standard - and part-way back again: rules for worship. Rashi picks up on the words Ka’Khem Ka’Ger, "like you, like the sojourner", and comments, "like you, so shall the convert be" - an identity statement. He then gives some other examples to demonstrate that this short verbless "like this, like that" construction is a feature of biblical Hebrew: "'like the garden of Adonai, like the land of Egypt' (Genesis 13:10) means 'so was the land of Egypt' and 'Like me, like you; like my troops, like your troops; like my horses, like your horses' (1 Kings 22:4) means 'I am like you; my people are like your people'", implying we will fight alongside each other as one.
Rabbi Samson Hirsch, basing his argument on a Talmudic discussion (b. Keritot 8b), affirms that this extends to complete equality: "One duty, one law, the same rights. Just as here in offerings so altogether there is complete equality before God, i.e., in all relations of man to God and God to man." Rav Sha'ul makes the same point for Gentiles and other categories of believer in Messiah: "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor freeman, neither male nor female; for in union with the Messiah Yeshua, you are all one" (Galatians 3:28). It is not that the differences between these groups is removed - on the contrary, if anything they are sharpened as they we all take on the commands of Torah and identity in Yeshua – We all have equality before God; we stand as co-heirs in Messiah.
All believers in Messiah in good standing are equal before God, regardless of background, birth or social status.
The scholar Richard E. Friedman takes a related but slightly different approach to argue that "this is an essential principle of the Torah: Israelites are not privileged over anyone else. A country must treat everyone who lives in it fairly, with equality under the law." The Rambam: Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon points out not only how the law applies to everyone, but why it must: "The Law does not pay attention to the isolated ... it is directed only towards the majority and pays no attention to rare happenings or the damage that may occur to individuals. It will not be possible that the laws be dependent on changes in the circumstances of individuals and of times... on the contrary, governance of the Law ought to be absolute and universal, including everyone, even if suitable only for certain individuals and not suitable for others; for if it were made to fit individuals, the whole would be corrupted and you would have something that varies" (Guide for the Perplexed 3:34). Perhaps James had something of the same idea in mind when he wrote, "whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all" (James 2:10); a break in one part of the law still makes you a lawbreaker, Jew or Gentile, no matter how big or small that part may be.
Rabbi Judah the Prince takes another line from "like you, like the stranger: "Rabbi says: 'As you' means as your forefathers: As your forefathers entered into the covenant only by circumcision, immersion and the sprinkling of the blood, so shall they enter the Covenant only by circumcision, immersion and the sprinkling of the blood" (b. Keritot 9a). On the face of it, Rabbi Judah is talking about conversion; just as the Jewish people themselves entered into the covenant with God by circumcision, immersion and the sprinkling of the blood, so those who come into the Jewish people as converts enter in the same way. At Sinai, the descendants of Avraham were all assumed to be circumcised, they were told to "consecrate themselves and wash their garments" (Exodus 19:10) and then "Moshe took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, 'Behold the blood of the covenant, which Adonai has made with you'" (24:8).
Since the making of the Covenant at Sinai was a one-off event, converts during biblical times were not sprinkled with blood; instead that phrase was taken to mean "offering the sacrifices", so that once a convert had been circumcised and immersed in the mikvah, they completed the process by offering a burnt offering and a sin offering. Since the destruction of the Temple, rabbinic Judaism has substituted an explicit commitment to keep all the commandments for the act of sacrifice. The morning prayer service includes reading of some of the Bible passages describing the sacrifices, following the idea that studying the sacrifices is as much as Adonai has allowed the Jewish people to do since He allowed the Temple to be removed, so He will accept study in place of practice until such time as the Temple is rebuilt.
If we follow the line that everyone comes to God in the same way - by circumcision, immersion and blood - can we say that believers in Messiah fit that pattern?
Moshe tells the Israelites that "Adonai your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love Adonai your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live" (Deuteronomy 30:6); Rav Sha'ul tells the believers that "it was in union with him that you were circumcised with a circumcision not done by human hands" (Colossians 2:11) Furthermore, “it is we who are the Circumcised, we who worship by the Spirit of God and make our boast in the Messiah Yeshua!" (Philippians 3:3). That seems to cover the first criteria: believers in Messiah are circumcised in their hearts, rather than in their flesh; this applies both to men and women and to both Jew and Gentile.
It is the work of the Spirit who enables us to "put off the flesh" (Colossians 2:11). Baptism is the direct equivalent to immersion in the mikvah; in the first kehillah, it was exactly the same thing - that was how baptism was done. Baptism is both a sign and a sacrament; a sign of obedience and submission, a sacrament bring new life in Yeshua: "We have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Messiah was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:4). The blood, of course, is the blood of Yeshua, shed on the cross, "In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses" (Ephesians 1:7), so that those "who were once far off have been brought near through the shedding of the Messiah's blood" (2:13).
Do we, however, miss a trick if we neglect the question of commandments? Are not believers required to make a commitment to follow Yeshua's commandments? Without such a commitment, simply signing up by saying the Sinner's Prayer and then "living the life of Riley" makes a mockery of Yeshua's own words, "If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love" (John 15:10), as well as the idea of heart circumcision, baptism and the blood. There must be a commitment to obey Yeshua, to become a disciple and to learn to follow Him, as Yeshua said: "If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me" (Mark 8:34).
That brings us neatly back to our original text and its context in the surrounding verses. Believers are to offer themselves as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1); there shall be one standard followed by all believers and to which God will hold us accountable, loving God with everything that we are and our neighbors as ourselves; worship, though offered in many different styles, shall be in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24). Truth and justice are to be found in and among the people of God and shared with the world living around us, as we invite them to join our worship and song to God, belonging and believing in the God of Israel, becoming part of His kingdom, and finding their true life in Yeshua. This is what "like you, like the stranger" means; wanting them, whoever 'they' are, to be able to be like us, to share in God's blessing so that there is nothing that we have, that they too cannot have and be in Messiah.
Numbers 15:29 tells us, ...there shall be one instruction for you, for the one who acts unintentionally. This verse comes in the middle of a block of five verses dealing with people who sin. The first two (27-28) discuss someone who sins inadvertently, using very similar words to Leviticus (Vayikra) 4:27-31. The last two (30-31) apply where sin is committed intentionally.
This middle verse acts as a pivot, linking the two cases together by the common theme that the same rules being given in the section apply with equal certainty whether the offender - deliberate or accidental - is a native Israelite, one of the Children of Israel, or a stranger or an alien who is simply living within the community of Israel. The ger, foreign resident, sojourner, alien, occupied the position of "protected stranger" among the people of Israel. In exchange for a certain loyalty to their hosts and being bound by some of their laws, they were formally protected against oppression or exploitation. Adonai’s attitude to sin is always consistent, no matter who is responsible or how it is carried out; sin is still sin and always causes a breach of relationship. The Scriptures are adamant that sin is a universal condition; during his prayer at the dedicating of the temple, Solomon says of Israel, "If they sin against you, for there is no one who does not sin..." (1 Kings 8:46) and the book of Ecclesiastes extends that to all people, "Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins" (Ecclesiastes 7:20). Rav Sha'ul repeats this for a Gentile audience: "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Whilst Augustine's 4th century formulation of the Doctrine of Original Sin; that every person is actually born or created a sinner; is rightly to be rejected, it is certainly true that every man, woman and child on this earth has an unwavering tendency towards sin and that however well people may learn to control their behavior as they reach adulthood (or later), there is absolutely no question but that everyone has some events in their past that they know to be wrong and of which they are not proud.
Similarly, Adonai's response to sin is always consistent: "If an individual sins by mistake, he is to offer a female goat in its first year as a sin offering. The Cohen will make atonement before Adonai for the person who makes a mistake by sinning inadvertently; he will make atonement for him, and he will be forgiven - no matter whether he is a citizen of Israel or a foreigner living with them" (Numbers 15:27-29); a sacrifice is required and the priest makes atonement. The act of sacrificing of a life makes the sinner aware of the cost of sin, while the blood provides the covering or atonement "For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement" (Leviticus 17:11).
Since the Hurban - the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE - Judaism has been unable to bring sacrifices for sin; there is no temple, no altar and no ritually pure priesthood. Instead, relying on verses such as "What does Adonai require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8) and "I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, and in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings" (Hoshea 6:6), the early rabbis reformulated the sin offerings as a combination of repentance, prayer and charity. Repentance is recognizing, regretting, and turning away from sin; prayer is communicating your sorrow to God and asking for forgiveness; charity is a token sacrifice, usually money, given to the poor, humbling yourself by giving something of substance away to another. The rabbis argue that since God had allowed the temple to be removed, He must have been prepared to accept an alternative to sacrifice in its place.
In the 12th century, Rambam went as far as teaching that God always thought sacrifice inferior to prayer and philosophical meditation but allowed it as a temporary concession to the Israelites until He had been able to wean them away from the practices of the other nations. By contrast, followers of Yeshua have held that He Himself made the one complete sin offering for all time, validating all the blood sacrifices offered by the Israelites and making forgiveness available to all who ask and believe in Him. Yeshua is both the sacrifice and the priest bringing the sacrifice to God since He offered Himself. Both require faith: in the case of the ancient Israelites, that a simple animal sacrifice would be "enough" to cover their sins and that God would forgive them; for believers in Yeshua, that the atonement made on the cross was really available simply by asking. In both cases, the rabbis insist that true repentance and, if appropriate, suitable restitution should be made.
The writer to the Hebrews explains that the blood sacrifices, although providing a covering for sin, until Yeshua came, were only temporary: "For the Law ...can never by the same sacrifices year by year, which they offer continually, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? But in those sacrifices, there is a reminder of sins year by year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins" (Hebrews 10:1-4). Instead, Yeshua, "having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified" (vv. 12-14).
In the same way as the Torah provided one rule for all who sinned, whether Israelite or ger in the Land, now God's salvation in Yeshua - the forgiveness of sins in His name and relationship with God - is available to Jew or Gentile alike; it is the only way to receive forgiveness, as Peter and John explained before the Sanhedrin: "And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). Rav Sha'ul therefore emphasizes that the gospel: "is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Romans 1:16). Just in case anyone missed that, he summarizes in the middle of the next chapter, "There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to every man who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God" (2:9-11).
Whether celebrating your bar mitzvah at the age of 13 or at the age of 83, the underlying idea remains the same: Becoming a bar mitzvah is not so much about the ceremony; rather it is an inner, spiritual state of being. When you turned 13, you became a man, mature enough to observe the mitzvahs and continue the beautiful traditions which have been passed down through the generations since Sinai. As I close on this momentous occasion of a young man entering religious adulthood, I ask you all… Are you committed to following Yeshua, pursuing justice for all (Deuteronomy 16:20) and doing whatever He says it takes to make the Kingdom of God visible in this world? Have you begun the journey of your religious adulthood?
Amein v’Amein, b’Shem Yeshua