My Own Personal Torah

“Form many groups and study Torah, for the Torah is only acquired through study in a group.” (Talmud, Berakhot 63b)

Ideas such as Sola Scriptura undermine the process of learning that is required in a community setting, where the open sharing of thoughts and ideas must be encouraged and not discouraged, in an environment of reverence and respect for the leaders.

Unfortunately, the concept which runs rampant within the Church and the Messianic world is that every individual believer can read the Bible for themselves and determine what it means on any subject matter, on their own, without the help of others or the opinions or traditions of alternate viewpoints being brought to bear. This may sound wonderfully idealistic, but it’s just not possible.

No matter who you are, and regardless of how objective you think your approach is, you are no doubt highly influenced by an inherited tradition of interpretation. You may think that you came to a conclusion on your own, but if we could rewind the movie of your life, we would find a moment (more likely a series of reinforced moments) in which your understanding was suggested to you by a trusted source of information. This is how learning happens. This is a wonderful aspect of human relationship.

But there is an interesting psychological phenomenon which occurs in our brains, causing us to attach emotion to opinions which we embrace, forging, over time, an impenetrable wall which enshrines these opinions as facts, building layer upon layer of supporting evidence while dismissing any “facts” which seem to contradict it. In psychology, this is called confirmation bias, and we are all guilty of it. It’s part of how we survive in the world. It’s a healthy aspect of how God has wired us, when understood and not allowed to stop the process of seeking truth.

But, left unchecked, this natural tendency will cause us to literally hate people who seem to threaten our understanding of the world, particularly if they deny things that are core to our sense of personal identity.

In Bible/Torah study, this results in the development of our “own personal Torah”. This is how denominations start and schisms happen. It’s usually over one or two distinctions, even though the vast corpus of the belief system may in fact be largely identical. Division happens anyway, because of this psychological phenomenon. There is a body of Jewish writings which speaks of this very eloquently:

“The Holy Torah is a Torah of life. It does not guide its followers towards a life of asceticism or a rejection of the wholesome pleasures of the world that raise the spirits of an individual. Therefore, the Torah anticipates that those who walk in its path will be members of a community, whose support and encouragement will help facilitate their spiritual growth and development…An essential aspect of a Torah scholar is the role that he plays in improving the world around him. To accomplish this, the scholar must develop an appreciation for opinions that are at variance with his own, both in the realm of halacha and in the realm of ethics. That kind of openness comes about only by means of group study, in the course of which one becomes accustomed to hearing opinions that are different than his own. When one chooses to limit debate and to remain secluded within his own closed community, he is unable to learn the ideas and thoughts of his peers and will consequently be unwilling to accept dissenting positions. Isolation inevitably leads to intractable disagreements and, ultimately, to bitter fights and arguments.” (from Ein Ayah)

It is invariably true that people who isolate themselves from outside influence, and only allow people “in” who think just like them, tend to be unable to engage in honest dialog without becoming needlessly defensive and combative towards anyone who holds a different opinion. This is very unhealthy, but is rampant within the Messianic world as well as within the Church.

Truthfully, most of the Christian and Messianic world is content to have others do their thinking for them. We adopt views and practices which seem to work for us, and are consistent with how we view the world. We shun expressions of faith which seem at odds with our views. This is not always bad! It’s how we protect ourselves from false teaching and concepts that could lead us away from the Lord. But often, as noted, it is unhealthy.

The sages of Israel viewed the study of Torah as something which would require sacrifice and toil, and the input of others. There is actually a halachic ruling concerning this:

“…matters of Torah are only retained by one who kills himself over it? As it is stated: “This is the Torah: When one dies in a tent.” (Num.19:14); true Torah study demands the total devotion of one who is willing to dedicate his life in the tent of Torah.”(Berakhot 63b)

However, you may ask, doesn’t this halachic ruling support the idea of individual study as opposed to group dialog? Well, yes and no. Personal study is a wonderful practice, but if it doesn’t get tested and molded by group dialog, it doesn’t bear fruit.

“Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “If you have done foolishly in lifting up yourself, or if you have planned devices, lay your hand over your mouth” (Prov.30:32)? Anyone who abases himself over matters of Torah, asking questions despite the shame he feels for his ignorance, will ultimately be exalted. And if he muzzles himself due to embarrassment, he will end up with his hand over his mouth, unable to answer.” (Berakhot 63b)

Our ideas don’t become mature until they have gone through the vetting process of group study. But this group study has two critical elements which must be present:

  1. There must be a deep respect for the teacher and labor he/she has performed in order to have something to share. Questioning a teaching is not the same as showing disrespect and disdain for it and/or the teacher.

2. There must not be any tendency on the part of the teacher or group to marginalize an            honest questioner who sincerely desires to learn.

The apostle Paul was deeply concerned with this problem during his ministry, as he writes:

“Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor.1:10-13)

We are all different. We have different ways of looking at the world; different experiences entirely. Yet, in many ways we are not very different at all.

Your brother, neighbor, friend and enemy alike all share many of the same dreams, pain, emotions and insecurities. It’s natural to disagree, but it doesn’t have to end relationship.

“For man is born for trouble, as sparks fly upward.” (Job 5:7)

The question, then, is who has the right to establish the authority of interpretation? The answer will be unsatisfying to most. The Jewish people have been given the responsibility of stewardship and interpretation of the Word of God (Rom.3:1-2).

Additionally, the apostles were given the authority of interpretation over the community of Yeshua-followers by the Lord himself (Matt.18:18).

The Beit Din (house of judgment/elders) which the Lord raised up set parameters over the community in Acts 15 which are still binding today. We can’t get around it. Neither can we ignore the writings of Paul, as many would like to do, simply because he brings to the surface some difficult teachings that are hard to wrestle with. We don’t get to decide whether they are relevant. That role has not been granted to us.

Finally, the Torah cannot be read according to a traditional Church theological lens, whether you are Dispensationalist or Reformed, or Roman Catholic, or another expresion. You don’t have the right to abrogate the Jewish understanding of the Torah just because it doesn’t suit your fancy. You cannot dismiss the Jewish traditions just because you don’t understand them and they “don’t work for you”.

We must resist the temptation to invent “our own personal Torah”.

We will never agree completely on every subject. But we must stay in dialog. Our children depend on it.

“Torah scholars are those who build peace for their generation. As it is stated: “Those who love Your Torah have great peace; there is no stumbling block for them” (Psalms 119:165); and “May there be peace within your walls, prosperity within your palaces” (Psalms 122:7)…” (Berakhot 64a)

Remember why we press on: For the sake of the next generation. If we invent our own personal Torah, just to reconcile what we don’t or won’t understand, we elongate the process of redemption, and send the confusion and uncertainty down to them. We must be mature. No one is perfect. No teacher is infallible. And neither are you.

Shalom.

 

 

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