32. Yeshua and Limits of Rabbinic Authority

Arye Powlison

There are several areas of rabbinic teaching which Yeshua rejected out of hand as unacceptable. Usually, the reason was that they contradicted fundamental logic based on The Scriptures, or even that they contradicted The Scriptures directly. However neither Yeshua nor His disciples rejected rabbinic teaching with the argument that the rabbis lacked the authority to decide Halachah (the applicable Law of Moses for the Jewish people); nor did they reject rabbinic additions to Jewish practice merely because They were rabbinic additions. For example:

Even though the synagogue was a purely rabbinic institution, which as far as we know was the result of the Babylonian exile (Encyclopaedia Judaica( Enc. Jud.) vol.15, p.580), neither Yeshua nor Paul hesitated to use the synagogue as the place to begin preaching the gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The temple built by King Herod was very different from the tabernacle in the Law of Moses, and had only rabbinic authority for its sanctity; yet Yeshua did not hesitate to defend it as His Father’s house (Matt. 21:13), and His disciples also treated it with the same respect.

Even though there is nothing in the Law or the Prophets about head covering for worship, head covering for women and no covering for men was the rabbinic worship tradition in both Judea and Galilee during the first century. It also became the only tradition in the early churches, and was therefore passed on by Paul even to the Gentiles (I Cor. 11:16).

Peter said that it was unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile, and that if G-d had not given him special revelation, he would have objected to going with the people who were sent to him by Cornelius (Acts 10:28-29). Yet there was nothing in the Law of Moses that would forbid these things; they were rabbinic enactments, and the only apparent ground for Peter’s objection was rabbinic authority.

These examples show that neither Yeshua nor His disciples rejected rabbinic authority in principle, not even when it was used to enact new practices or establish new institutions not explicitly contained in the Law of Moses. If they had held to a common Protestant doctrine of today which rejects any practice unless it is supported by two or three verses of scripture, they would have reacted differently in each of the preceding cases.

Nevertheless, rabbinic authority as taught by Yeshua was not absolute. Even though He said, “All that they tell you, do and observe,” (Matt. 23:3) it was “all” in the same sense in which He said, “and you will be hated by all on account of My name” (Matt. 10:22); not meaning “absolutely all”, but rather, “in general”. A prominent example of a disagreement between Yeshua and rabbinic authority was the case of ceremonial handwashing before eating bread.

The purpose of this article is not to look at specific differences in practice, such as handwashing, but to look at some of the differences in basic principles: the authority of the Scriptures, the importance of service, the importance of the heart, and the authority of Heaven on earth.

The Authority of the Scriptures

Yeshua taught that the authority of the Scriptures was greater than rabbinic authority, calling it a “transgression” to follow a rabbinic tradition which contradicts the Scriptures:

“‘And why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of G-d for the sake of your tradition?”‘ (Matt. 15:3)

Yeshua gave three examples of traditions which made it possible to transgress the Law:

1. A way to avoid the obligation of supporting your parents, by dedicating to the temple whatever could be of help to them (Matt. 15:3-6; cf. Ex. 20:12). 2. A way for someone to swear an oath without being obliged to fulfil it, which was made possible by the decision that certain formulas used in an oath rendered it invalid (Man. 23:16-22; cf. Num. 30:2). 3. The confiscation of a widow’s estate (Mark 12:40; Luke 20:46-47). According to rabbinic sources, this was possible after the payment of the amount in her ketubbah (marriage contract) by her husband’s heirs (TB, Ket. 52b, 54a), and could result in her being placed on the welfare role when her ketubbah money was used up (Acts 6:1;1 Tim. 5:3-16). Since the Law did not explicitly include a man’s wife in its list of his beneficiaries (Num. 27:8-11), the scribes ruled that she was not allowed to inherit from him. However, Num. 27:11, which was interpreted by the rabbis to mean that a man does inherit from his wife, uses only the male gender, and could equally mean that a wife inherits from her husband; this problem compelled Abaye and Raba to try to alter the Biblical text (Baba 111b).

The widow was allowed to benefit from her husband’s estate only according to what was written in her ketubbah (marriage contract); in Judea, excluding Jerusalem, and according to the school of Rav, the ketubbah was written without including the right to live in his house or to be maintained from his estate (TB, Ket. 52b, 54a). This problem has since been eliminated by making all ketuboth according to the practice in Jerusalem and Galilee, and according to the school of Samuel, whereby the widow has both the right to live in her husband’s house and to be maintained from his estate until her death (Maim. Yad, Ishut 12:1). However, contrary to a consistent interpretation of Num. 27:11, she is still not accepted as her husband’s heir.

Yeshua said that they also did many other things like these (Mark 7:13). According to Yeshua’s teaching, the person who avoids a Scriptural obligation through rabbinic enactments such as these is transgressing the Law. We therefore have to be very careful not to make use of such rulings. Here is a list of some commonly used traditions of this kind:

The Sabbath

1. Avoid the restriction against carrying things out of your house (Jer. 17:22) into a public place on the Sabbath by having the rabbinate build an “eruv” (usually a metal wire stretched between poles) around your community. Then you can act as if the whole community were your house (TB, Er. 1 la-b). Some Haredim refuse to rely on this kind of eruv.

2. Avoid the restriction against carrying things from your house (Jer. 17:22) into an adjoining house by jointly buying a loaf of bread, and placing it in one of the houses. Then you can act as if they are the same house (TB, Er. 17b, 61b-82a).

3. Avoid the restriction against cooking food on a holiday Sabbath for the following day (Ex. 12:16), when it is a regular Sabbath, by preparing an “eruv tavshilin” of some cooked food intended for the regular Sabbath before the holiday Sabbath begins (TB, Bezah 1 6a-1 7b). Often a rabbi prepares this for the whole community.


4. Avoid having to remove leaven from your house for Passover (Ex. 12:15,19); instead, put it into a closet, and have your rabbi “sell” the closet to a Gentile. At the end of Passover, it will automatically become yours again (TB, Shab. 18b; Pes. 13a ,21a). However, the development of such sales was a historical process; (for details see Enc. Jud., vol.7, pp.1237-1238).

5. Avoid having to prepare your house for Passover at all (Ex. 12:14-20), by staying in a kosher hotel for the week, and having your rabbi “sell” the whole house to a Gentile for the holiday (same references as above).

The Year of Release (Shmittah)

6. Avoid forgiving people their debts in the year of release (Deut. 15:1-11) by filling out a “prosbul”; this turns your debts over to the rabbinic court for collection, and they in turn make you their collecting agent (TB, Git. 36a-37a).

7. Avoid letting your land lie fallow during the year of release (Lev. 25:2-7) by having the rabbinate “sell” it for you to a Moslem for two years only. This costs you nothing, and at the end of the two years “ownership” of the land automatically returns to you. (This hetter, or permission, was granted for the early Zionist settlements by R. Isaac Elhanan Spector of Kovno in 1889, and gradually became the accepted ruling during the following Sabbatical Years. It has been regularly renewed by the chief rabbinate in Jerusalem since the founding of the State of Israel. The Ultra-Orthodox do not accept it as valid (Enc Jud., vol.14, pp. 582-585).

8. Avoid having to share (according to the rule of removal) your seventh-year produce (Lev. 25:5-7; Deut. 26:13), by declaring it ownerless before three friends who will not take it; then carry it back into your house (The Laws of the Shmittah Year, a Practical Guide, by Shlomo First, p.28, Binyan Olam Publishers, 1986).


9. Avoid the restriction against charging interest to other Jews (Deut. 23:19) by calling it a “business partnership” instead, and adding the words “al-pi helter iskah” to the note or contract (this was a historical development; see Enc. Jud., vol.16, pp.27-32).


10. Avoid wasting time in the repetition of your daily prayers (Deut. 6:5-6; Matt. 6:7; Mark 12:40) by saying them quickly; as long as you have directed your heart toward heaven and repeated the words, you have fulfilled the minimum requirements for prayer (Donin, To pray As a Jew, pp.16-20, Basic Books Inc., 1980). While this is certainly not the recommended way to pray, it seems to be the most common actual practice.


11. Avoid having to worry about what the Bible says (Deut. 5:31-33;17:18-20; Josh. 1:7-8; Luke 16:17), by following the majority of the rabbinical court; their authority allows them to depart even from what is stated in the Scriptures (Berkovits, Not In Heaven, pp.57-64, Ktav Publishing House Tnc. 1983; rabbinic references are available in his footnotes).

12. Avoid scriptural restrictions on your halachic decisions (Deut. 16:18-20; Matt. 15:3) by knowing the Bible, and the accepted rules for its interpretation so well that, for any given question, you can find dozens of reasons to support whichever decision you choose (Berkovits, Not In Heaven, pp.50-53, Ktav Publishing House Inc., 1983).

13. If one of the commandments is too difficult (Deut. 30 14; 32:4-6; Luke 6:34-35; 11:4), change its requirements to make it easier; this is better than leaving the people under condemnation as transgressors for refusing to obey (Berkovits, Not In Heaven, pp.95-100, Ktav Publishing House Inc., 1983).

14. Judgement is necessarily exercised by limited, fallible people; nevertheless, you must judge only by your own understanding of the case, even if it seems contrary to what Scripture says (Num. 15:39; Deut. 5:31-33;12:8; 21:9), since those who wrote the Scriptures were not dealing with your particular case (Berkovits, Not In Heaven, pp.53-57, Ktav Publishing House Inc., 1983).

This somewhat free and easy attitude toward the Scriptures has not only been characteristic of rabbinic circles, it has also characterised the churches which have claimed for themselves apostolic authority; it even is found in Protestant circles where people like to believe that they are faithful to the Scriptures. Who objects in principle to a believer refusing to give money to someone, or requiring that a loan be repaid (contrary to Luke 6:30-35)? Who objects to someone being called the leader of a congregation (Matt. 23:8-10)? Who objects when a believer physically resists evil (Matt 5:38-42)?

The same goes for changing the interpretation of the Scriptures to fit the pressures of a given situation. How many churches now allow women to be in positions of authority over men (I Cor. 14:34-36; I Tim. 2:11-14)? How many churches now ignore the headcovering tradition passed on to the Gentile churches by Paul (I Cor. 11:1-16; II Thes. 2:15; 3:6)? How many churches now feel that it is all right for divorcees to remarry (Matt. 5:32; Luke 16:18).

The Importance of Service

Yeshua said that leadership is not to be demonstrated by the exercise of authority, but by service:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not to be so with you, but whoever wants to become great among you, let him be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first, he should be your slave, for in the same way the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:25-28)

The Lord of the worlds came to serve us in the way of humility. He did not seek to exercise authority, but humbled himself to the extent of washing His disciples’ feet, in order to be an example for us. Indeed, there is no one who has served us so much, so consistently, and with such humility.

Yeshua’s words should have some practical implications for us. First, anyone who seeks to be a leader in order to have authority over others, should be given such authority and leadership only to the extent that he succeeds in serving more than others; and according to Yeshua’s example, he cannot decide that any kind of work is beneath his dignity or inappropriate for his standing, without compromising that position of service. Second, if we seek to wield authority over others, it may be that we do not understand the kind of love which causes a person to lay down his life for others; in that case we do not know either the Lord or His Father (I John 4:7-21). A person who wants to be great does not usually think he can achieve greatness by giving, but rather by receiving; only if everyone around him reveres a giving spirit will he then pretend to have one, in order to win their respect.

Third, if a person wishes to serve in order to become great in the eyes of others, he is not loving in his service, but rather selfish. This will become apparent when it appears to him that people have not recognised the value of his service; since recognition is what he is after, he will find a way to bring his actions to public attention. Since love is our primary goal, such a person should not be given any position of authority; he is a hypocrite.

Service as evidence of leadership is foreign to much of rabbinic teaching, and also foreign to the teaching of many churches; practically, it is also foreign to what actually happens in most congregations of believers. People become leaders of churches by going through seminary for that purpose, and receiving a diploma; they are then elected pastor of a congregation, and are given leadership over it. Willingness to perform menial service is not usually a condition for receiving a pastorate. Similarly, a person who wishes to become a great rabbi attends a yeshiva until he is given smikhah (ordination), and then he tries to find a salaried position which will allow him to continue studying.

At first glance these may seem like harmless enough methods to ensure that only the most qualified people become congregational leaders. What is often ignored, however, is that the positions which are achieved through today’s scholarship were not part of congregational organisation in the New Testament. They are often set up according to a business hierarchy of control, and they usually produce roles of individual leadership which were forbidden by Yeshua. He is to be our only leader, rabbi, or teacher; His Father is to be the only one addressed as our spiritual father; the rest of us are brothers, whose greatness should be measured by loving service (Matt. 23:8-10). Seminary should be a means for enhancing someone’s gift of teaching or of pastoral care, Which were not meant to be gifts of authoritarian control, but rather of service. They are not the only gifts which should be in operation, nor should they be exercised by only one person. Perhaps the worst thing about the scholarship system is that it encourages self-seekers to try to earn spiritual authority without true repentance, and to gain the respect of others by means which have nothing to do with the true love of the Lord. This in turn breeds envy and resentment of the authority that they wrongly wield over others, and encourages disrespect for the authority which the elders of a congregation ought to be given for their roles of service. Eldership becomes a rather meaningless title, and it is sometimes given to the wealthier members of the congregation who support the pastor’s leadership. “Deacon” often becomes the title given to reward those who accept the humdrum chores that the pastor and elders would rather not do themselves.

Let’s Get Practical

In everyday life this means that your personal Rabbi must be Yeshua alone. This means that the functions of a personal rabbi should be performed by Him: your specific halachic guidance for a given situation should come from Him; the respect given to your personal rabbi belongs to Him; your Torah should be learned first and foremost from Him. If you do not hear His voice, then He is not your Rabbi, and you do no know Him. He said, “My sheep hear My voice.” (John 10:27) Paul wrote, “For as many as are led by the Spirit of G-d, they are the sons of G-d.” (Rom. 8:14)

It means that your congregation should not be controlled by one person, except for the control that goes naturally to the person who serves everyone else the most. It also means that our goal in life is not to become famous or rich or great; it is to lose ourselves in the Lord, while He uses us to provide loving service to more and more people around us. The more He serves others through us, the more “successful ” we are as His disciples. The degree to which we are noticed in the service He gives us has nothing to do with our success; more likely than not it will reduce our effectiveness by appealing to our pride.

Finally, the way that we live Torah will be greatly influenced by such an approach. Your Judaism will hardly be recognisable when compared with that which is practised by most people today. You will not be studying in order to become known; you will use what you have in the service of others; you will not be trying to attract attention to yourself; you will not be afraid to suffer, or to be in need. Most of all, you will not be afraid for it to be known that Israel did not recognise her Messiah, and that she hung Him on a tree.

The Importance of the Heart

As in Yeshua’s day, large segments of modern Judaism have a rather external approach to the requirements of the Law of Moses. In general, because of the court system within which the Law must be practised, a requirement is usually considered noteworthy if it can be proved to have been performed by some external, verifiable evidence. If the required act was witnessed to have been performed correctly, then there is no grounds for punishment by the court, regardless of the state of the person’s heart. Since halachah developed largely in response to the changing demands of a system of courts and judges, it tends to deal in such verifiable externals as can be brought in evidence before a rabbinic court.

Since the heart cannot be seen, and external evidence of what goes on in the heart is unreliable, commandments concerning the heart can only be judged by G-d. There are therefore few Halachic guidelines for such commandments. They fall into the category of moral imperatives, and they must be dealt with by persuasion of various kinds, including preaching and exhortation. One often feels sure he knows when some of the heart commands are being broken, but it would be hard to prove it in court. It is even harder to establish a given external act as proof that some required state of the heart exists, for external acts can usually be imitated.

Many in Judaism, and also many in Christianity, have therefore contented themselves with the performance of the external acts, and have in effect adopted their existence as proof of a loving heart. When spiritual apathy sets in, perfunctory performance is usually considered satisfactory. This is not what Yeshua taught.

Yeshua taught that the matters of the heart were more important; and that they did not result from, nor was their existence proved by, the performance of external commandments. Listen to His accusations against the scribes and Pharisees:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; you should have done these things without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat, and swallow a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you too outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matt. 23:23-28)

What Yeshua hinted at here, He taught clearly on other occasions: that the circumcision of the heart is an essential condition for entry into the Kingdom of Heaven:

“For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matt. 5:20)

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of G-d. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:5-6; cf. Ezek. 36:25-27)

Yeshua taught that a clean heart is more important than a clean body. Even if we agree with that in principle, it is still harder to clean your heart, because you cannot easily see the dirt there, and your heart tries very hard to camouflage itself and its sins. Nevertheless, we must have it cleaned if we are to know G-d. Circumcision of the heart is a commandment of the Torah (Deut. 16:10), but for the reasons stated above, you will not find it in the rabbinic list of 613 commandments. Yet not until G-d performs such an operation on us will we be capable of obeying the rest of the Torah (Deut. 30:4-8; Ezek. 36:24-28).

What can we do that will persuade G-d to circumcise us? How can we enter into the performance of the most important commands of the Torah, those which require us to love with all our hearts? As Paul wrote, without them, the external acts are just a noisy disharmony (I Cor. 13).

Powerful love is the key to your life in the Torah. Without it, you are dealing in dry externals.

There is only one answer: you must ask Yeshua to circumcise your heart (Col. 2:11). It is only He that can cleanse you from your own wretchedness. It is only through His sacrifice of Himself that G-d will agree to circumcise your heart (John 14:6). Yeshua is the love of G-d. When you come into Him, and He comes into you, G-d’s own love will light up your life, and also your Torah. Without Him, your Torah is only dry bones.

Torah that does not come from Him in you is human Torah; if it comes from Him, it is divine, and you are sharing in the glory of the Father. Torah in Him is living Torah, the Torah of Paradise, the Tree of Life. Human Torah is an imitation of the divine by something which cannot be what it wants to be.

If your Torah is human, you will not succeed in pleasing G-d, as Paul wrote:

“… because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward G-d; for it does not subject itself to the law of G-d, for it is not even able to do so; and those who are in the flesh cannot please G-d. However, you are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of G-d dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Messiah, he does not belong to Him”. (Rom. 8:7-9)

This is the secret of the Torah of the heart. It is a way which was made possible by the Lamb of G-d from the beginning of creation, by the willing sacrifice of Himself for us, for the forgiveness of our sins.

The Authority of Heaven

One of the most blessed characteristics of Torah is that it was revealed from Heaven through angels to Moses (Heb. 2:2). Since it has the authority of Heaven behind it, there is no question of it being in error; it was given by G-d to Moses in such a way that every word and even every letter in it has its fulfilment (Matt. 5:18). According to Yeshua, it is more firmly established than the creation itself (Luke 16:17)

Once it was given into the hands of men, what became of its authority? Was it now detached from its heavenly source, and subject to the interpretation given to it by the rabbinic courts, or did it retain its living roots in Heaven, and remain subject first and foremost to Heavenly interpretation?

In the Talmud, there is a story about a decision concerning the ritual purity of the Aknai Oven; the apparent purpose of this story is to declare that the authority for the interpretation of the Torah has passed completely into the hands of men, and to such an extent that not even a voice from Heaven was to affect the deliberations of the rabbinic court (Baba Metzia 59b). It even claims that G-d was happy with this result, laughing ‘and saying, “My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.”

In effect, this also means that even though a voice from Heaven declared Yeshua to be G-d’s beloved Son (Luke 3:22), since the authority to decide whether or not someone is a false prophet was given to the rabbinic courts (Deut. 13:5;18:20-21), they could also decide, against the Heavenly voice, that Yeshua was a false prophet. If they have such authority, then Yeshua was not the Messiah, and the New Covenant is a figment of our imagination. If He is Messiah, then they do not have the kind of authority which they imagine they have.

Yeshua’s disciples did not believe that the rabbinic courts had that kind of authority, for when the Sanhedrin commanded them to stop preaching in the name of Yeshua, they answered, “We must obey G-d rather than men (Acts 5:29).” Therefore, in their understanding, the authority over the Law still began in Heaven. Yeshua Himself said that Jerusalem would not see Him again until they said to Him, “Blessed be He who comes in the name of the Lord”, acknowledging after all that He has Heavenly authority (Matt. 23:39).

We therefore must conclude that the exercise of rabbinic authority continues to be subject to the authority of Heaven, whether or not the rabbis acknowledge that to be the case. We must also conclude that until they do acknowledge it to be so, they are in a state of rebellion against both the authority of Heaven, and against Heaven’s Messiah (Ps. 2:2-10).

What practical applications does this have for us in our Jewish observance? It means that rabbinic judgements concerning the New Covenant are without value. It also means that any existing Halachah which is acknowledged to be against a Heavenly voice (such as the ritual cleanness of the Aknai Oven), or against prophetic teaching (such as contained in the New Testament), is wrong.

The cleansing of the Gentiles by faith is therefore a Heavenly fact which cannot be overruled by continuing rabbinic decisions to the contrary (Acts 15:9). Therefore, contact with a Gentile believer does not render kosher wine, or any other kosher food, ritually impure; nor is kosher food prepared by a Gentile believer rendered unfit because of being cooked by him (This does not mean, however, that we have permission to offend an orthodox Jew who does not understand that this is the case – I Cor. 10:32).

The status we obtain as sons in the Kingdom of Heaven is also something which is not subject to rabbinic influence, except for reasons of offence (Matt. 17:24-27). The salvation of the Gentiles is not subject to rabbinic denial (Acts 11:18); nor is their equal standing before G-d in the Spirit (Gal. 3:28).

Therefore, even though we accept rabbinic authority over Jewish believers, just as we submit to all those in authority over us (Rom. 13:1-2), we nevertheless do not accept that authority according to rabbinic rules. They are subject to the authority of Heaven, and of our Messiah Yeshua, and of the Scriptures, including the New Testament. Rabbinic teaching which contradicts any of these is false teaching, and must be ignored. On the other hand, Halachah which follows from any of these three sources, but which is not supported by the rabbis, is nevertheless Halachah to be obeyed by us.

This article was originally published by the Rod of Aaron Trust, and is reproduced by kind permission of the author, Arye Powlison, who publlshes a regular monthly paper in support of rabbinically-orientated Messianic Judaism. (Rod of Aaron, Box 71032, Jerusalem, Israel).

(Reprinted from Tishrei Vol 2 No 2, Winter 1993/1994, Rabbinic Judaism as a Background to Scripture.)



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