When the army of the LORD returned from conquering and despoiling the Midianites, we see the following command:
“Then Eleazar the priest said to the men in the army who had gone to battle: “This is the statute of the law that the LORD has commanded Moses: only the gold, the silver, the bronze, the iron, the tin, and the lead, everything that can stand the fire, you shall pass through the fire, and it shall be clean….You must wash your clothes on the seventh day, and you shall be clean. And afterward you may come into the camp.” (Num.31:21-24)
For the first time in Israel’s history, they brought the battle to the enemy, rather than simply defending against attack. This was unknown territory for the fledgling nation; to be the aggressor and conqueror. It required some adjustments to the protocol regarding certain forms of ritual purity.
The reason Eleazar is announcing these distinctions, and not Moses, is apparently because it is Eleazar, as the priest, who must officiate over these ordinances (Ibn Ezra).
The ordinance touches upon the strictest forms of kashrut, and brings to mind the rules of hechsher keilim, and tevilas keilim, which are laws of purifying vessels and utensils from contact with forbidden foods and also the purification of items, or utensils, used by non-Jews.
To the uninitiated, such rules may appear banal and unnecessary, but as Rabbi Hirsch points out, what is at issue is when, how and in what spirit we eat food; all of which help to determine the consecration of the Jewish personality (Munk).
The reason for the special instructions is that the men of war are engaged with non-Jews on their turf, which, by rules of engagement, would make all of them ritually impure by default.
What is most interesting for our purposes, though, is the fact that the definition of what is acceptable in these mitigating circumstances (being at war) is significantly different from what is acceptable under normal conditions within the community and near the Tabernacle. Even shockingly so.
But we should understand that the laws of ritual purity and defilement relate to the participation in the worship system as well as the sanctification of the community. They are not relevant when these factors are not present.
The Jewish sages record for us an eye-opening account of how this potentially plays out in such circumstances:
“Everything that would not come into the fire, you shall pass through the water.’ The commentators question why the commands for removing remnants of forbidden foods from utensils were not given after the war against Sichon and Og, the Emorite kings. Ramban replies that their territories although across the Jordan, were part of the historic land of Israel (see 21:21). All property in these territories became part of Israel’s and so a special dispensation applied: houses full of all good things which you did not fill…and you shall eat and you shall be satisfied (Deut.6:11). (See Talmud, Chullin 17a, which states that even pig’s meat found in those houses was permitted as a result of this dispensation.” (The Call of the Torah, Bamidbar, Rabbi Elie Munk, pg.377, Artscroll)
In other words, whatever the soldiers of the LORD found in the homes of the Midianites was theirs for their use, including whatever food they found.
This is reminiscent of a passage from the apostolic writings:
“Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace be to this house!” And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you. And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you.” (Lk.10:3-8)
It also reminds us of this:
“Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the LORD’s, and the fullness thereof.” If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience.” (1 Cor.10:25-27)
It is fashionable in the Messianic world to apologize such passages away in weak fashion by recoiling from their obvious implications and suggesting that these instructions assumed kosher observance, and merely apply to fine points of halachic distinction. However, this analysis ignores the presence of another factor: liminal space.
Liminal space is a space of transition, perhaps, or at least of fluid ambiguity. It represents a middle ground between well-defined identities or realities, and can form a very real threat to a person or a people group which derives his/her or their identity from the parameters and definitions already established. It can be defined as follows:
“… It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run…anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.” – Richard Rohr
“Participants “stand at the threshold” between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way. Continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt. – Wikipedia (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-creativity-cure/201306/creativity-and-the-liminal-space)
The important thing, relative to our discussion of kashrut, is that it’s possible for circumstances to arise which mitigate established norms without necessarily abolishing them. This means, particularly, that just because the halacha of kashrut is set, this does not preclude a great deal of flexibility (what would otherwise be reckoned as flagrant violation) concerning ritual purity laws when the conditions are present to justify such flexibility.
Such conditions, as found in our parsha, can include the state of war and the collecting of spoil. Or, as in the case of the ruling of Acts 15, it can include missionary activity to those drawing near to the kingdom of God and to Israel from the nations.
How are people who are designated as “unclean” by Jewish law to draw near and learn from Jews, if there is not a way to facilitate such an arrangement within the confines of the Torah? Actually, as our parsha illustrates (ironically through the Oral tradition), the Torah presents us with circumstances which give the insight necessary to envision such a condition or arrangement. This means, that when away from the sanctity of the halachic norms of the greater community, it is possible to envision a very flexible approach to non-Jews, for the purpose of being a soldier of the kingdom, if you will.
This insight gives rise to new questions as to the limits of Pauline flexibility in his halachic application of Jewish law in both the Diaspora and among the pagans.
Just like when the nation is at war, a missionary has rules of engagement which suspend normal protocol in the spirit of accomplishing the mission.
Likewise, this potentially raises serious questions about the geography of halachic obligations for not only Messianic Gentiles (when they are in missionary or even family gatherings) but also in terms of similar concerns for Messianic Jews.
Are we, as Jews and Gentiles, the “one new man” of the body of Messiah, to wholly embrace the halacha of Orthodoxy when and if it finds itself at odds with the apostolic testimony concerning such issues? Further, what if (as in the passage from the Jewish commentary, quoting the Talmud above) there is clear evidence from within the Orthodox Jewish world of interpretation that supports such an approach? Should we not heed it?
It’s important, at this point, to consider two things:
1) The ordinance in our parsha required, without question, that the conquerors separate and consecrate themselves before joining back with the community at large.
2) The ruling of Acts 15 was intended to facilitate the joining of Gentiles to Jewish community.
This means, among other things, that the Jerusalem Council was neither setting aside either Torah or Oral Law, or setting up new rules which supercede either tradition.
They were simply applying the principle of liminal space to the problem of Gentiles joining the sanctified space of Jewish community.
This flexible position should not be viewed as the Council treating the Gentile converts as second-class citizens, but rather should be understood to be an acknowledgment of the transitional and developmental nature of their involvement.
Perhaps this is part of what Paul has in mind in Romans 14, when he admonishes his audience:
“I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love…” (Rom.14:14-15)
When applying the concept of liminal space to Romans 14, we can understand (if we try) that Paul does not need to be portrayed as preaching against the laws of kashrut as a valid faith practice for both Jews and Gentiles, but is simply being reflective of a fluid application of such halacha when on a missionary task with those outside the sanctified realm of Jewish community.
Can the light of God’s revelation really be expected to shine when it is being smothered under a truckload of political and traditional baggage?
Ministerial flexibility is part of the territory of those who wish to walk in love towards their neighbor. The criticisms are inevitable.