A Review of Torah Rediscovered, 5th Edition

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Excited All Over AgainTorah Rediscovered, Ariel Berkowitz, D'vorah Berkowitz

I think I first read Torah Rediscovered in about the year 2000. By that time, it was already in its third edition, but I couldn’t tell you which edition I had. Most of what I remember about that experience was the excitement I felt reading it. Aside from the joy of seeing so many difficult passages of Scripture come alive, I recall taking a pen to my Bible and marking it up as I followed Ariel and D’vorah’s pastoral and passionate argument concerning the place of Torah in the believer’s life. Like many students of the Word, my Bible was already marked up – but only lightly, and in pencil. (After all, I might change my mind!) But this time was different. I used black ink and was making some significant marks. I remember the sense of feeling more bold about the notes I was making.

At that time, I was still a relative “newbie” to the Messianic world. For the previous few years I had been following the teachings of a few individuals (some via the “Prophecy Club”) that preached the seventh millennium was going to coincide more or less with Y2K. Anybody remember that time? Well, I bought in because I didn’t know any better. After all, these guys seemed to affirm the “Jewishness” of Jesus, the Torah for believers, and were able to include Hebrew and Greek phrases in their teaching. Allusions to the mysterious works of ancient rabbis appealed to me also. Certainly there was truth here; it felt so real… Needless to say, Y2K came and went without any of the big fanfare that many had anticipated.

Torah Rediscovered, however, was a completely different story. No sensationalism or hype. No tantalizing allusions to obscure rabbinic authorities. No strange computations about the end of the world. Just steady, solid, and scriptural teaching. Through the book I could sense that Ariel and D’vorah were the real deal. I’d never met them, but it was like I could feel their heart through their writing. (I did eventually meet Ariel a few years later when he was passing through Seattle. It was such a blessing to sit with a few other local pastors for the day and listen to his teaching.)

Well all that was over ten years ago, and here I am writing a review of the fifth edition! The tone of the book has not changed. It’s the same Ariel and D’vorah that I encountered back then. One difference is that the important work of the late Dr. Meredith G. Kline on the nature of covenants in the ancient Near East has been incorporated to this edition. But it is not that the Berkowitz’s have changed their position concerning the biblical covenants. Rather, the revision of Torah Rediscovered demonstrates the authors’ ongoing commitment to highlighting how Scripture speaks best when understood as a complete whole and when placed within the proper historical and cultural context. The Berkowitz “team” models for the reader what it means to come to the Word with a humble, teachable spirit; what it means to be a “student” of the Scripture. And this is as fresh and exciting today as it was when I first read it! Baruch Hashem!

Crucial Teachings

I would like to share with the reader four of the most important teachings communicated through this book. First is the nature of the term torah itself; second is the relationship of the Abrahamic and Sinaitic covenants; third is the relationship between Jews and Gentiles with respect to the Torah; fourth is the book’s treatment of the “oral torah” of the rabbis. Torah Rediscovered offers clear, biblical teaching on these issues and I believe that it is perhaps more crucial for the Body of Messiah to hear them today than it was when the book first came out back in 1996. It just feels like there’s so much more at stake now.

Woven throughout Torah Rediscovered is the reminder that the Hebrew word torah is not equivalent to today’s popular conception of “law.” By consistently rendering the Hebrew torah and Greek nomos as “law,” English translators provided what has become an important learning opportunity. Our authors do a superb job of explaining how the original biblical terminology carries much richer meaning, with key implications for our understanding of important passages. By leaving the term torah untranslated, the book frames for its readers the appropriate biblical and covenantal context for learning semantic ranges for torah and nomos much broader than our English “law” will allow.

Another important teaching reiterated throughout the book is the critical distinction between the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. The first provides the promise cultivated and enjoyed within the terms of the second. The “expected response” of the Abrahamic covenant is faith, while that of the Mosaic covenant is obedience. Our authors have included a helpful chart for communicating these points. This is not to say that God did not expect “obedience” from Abraham. Rather, this distinction aims to teach that “people were not saved by obeying the Torah, but by trusting in the promises of God” (p. 24). “A person cannot appropriate the full blessings of the covenant with Moshe (the Torah) unless he first enters into the covenant with Abraham” (p. 25). Here, the Berkowitz’s again demonstrate their grasp of the formulaic nature of ancient Near-eastern covenant which provides the background not only for the text of the Torah but for the Apostle Paul’s repeated insistence that Gentiles, like Jews, are heirs to the promises by faith.

This takes us to the next important teaching of Torah Rediscovered: Jewish and Gentile inheritance. The title of Chapter Four is “For Me? For You? For Who?” It could be called the heart of the book as far as I’m concerned. The other two points we’ve covered, namely, the semantic range of torah/nomos and its implications for interpreting Paul as well as the nature of covenants in the ancient Near-east, should be standard pieces to any decent 100-level “Introduction to the Bible” courses taught at seminaries and secular universities. Crucial teaching, but not yet the “meat.” What sets Torah Rediscovered apart significantly is its Jewish voice welcoming fellow Jews and Gentiles alike into the fullness of the Torah pursuant life.
Ariel and D’vorah take us on a tour of some prevalent questions or claims that believers are likely to encounter on their path to this fullness of Torah. Many have heard questions like, “Is the Torah an authority for the believer?” “Aren’t Law and Grace opposed?” “Isn’t only part of the Torah applicable?” “Isn’t the Torah only for physical Israel?” Anyone who has asked questions like these will benefit immensely from this chapter. Again, an excellent chart is provided to help readers conceptualize the covenantal structure to the Bible.

Reaching to both Jews and Gentiles, this chapter provides the biblical framework for gently guiding believers to the world and life of the Torah. Nearly fifteen pages are dedicated to unpacking the text of what is called “Jeremiah’s Covenant Renewal.” Preferring the term “renewed” over “new,” the Berkowitz’s affirm continuity of content between the covenant cut at Sinai and the covenant instituted with the shedding of Yeshua’s precious blood. At the heart of both is God’s holy Torah. Just as it says in Matthew 28, “…make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you…” What is “commanded,” the content of the disciples’ teaching, is interpreted to be the Torah. (p. 68-69)

Thus, this chapter also devotes special attention to explaining the Gentiles’ relationship to God through this “Renewed Covenant” and His people Israel. Several passages from the Prophets and Apostles are brought to bear on this controversial topic, but my favorite part of this chapter is the small section called simply, “The Best Argument.” Here, the authors remind readers that by faith we know that Messiah dwells in and among His people! “One of the many implications of the truth of the abiding Messiah is that it is the same Messiah that indwells both Jewish and gentile believers. The same Messiah is the Messiah who at all times lives Torah… Torah is who He is – and it is now who we are in Him.” (p. 75, italics original)

While I think of Chapter Four as the heart of Torah Rediscovered, I am especially grateful for the inclusion of Chapter Six, “Jewish Misconceptions of the Torah.” The Berkowitz’s are bold, sober, fair, and respectful in their investigation of the rabbinic sanctification of “Oral Torah.” They do not, as some Messianic Jewish teachers do, shy away from or avoid being critical of Jewish tradition and rabbinic authority. The basic question confronting (and unfortunately at times dividing) Jewish and Gentile believers in Yeshua is summed up nicely:

“Is the oral torah a real, genuine Torah from the Holy One, equal to the written Torah in its power to transform a life and in its spiritual authority? Does the written Torah permit us to assume an oral torah, given by God to Moshe but authoritative for every generation? Or are we to depend on the leading and teaching of the Spirit of God to apply Torah’s precepts to our generation?” (p. 100)

Our authors make the bold assertion that our loving Father foresaw and preempted the replacement of His Word with the commandments of men. The Holy One, they teach, saw that “oral torah experts” would emerge, who “would pronounce the believer unable to understand the Torah without their help.” (p. 102) Deuteronomy 30:11-14 is cited in support. “For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach…” The Berkowitz’s interpret this too mean “…one who has God’s righteousness does not need to look high or low for its proper interpretation or application. Instead, God’s Torah is always accessible to him.”  This position poses a potential threat to those invested in “oral tradition” as a distinctive Judaic symbol or even divinely inspired authority for determining the written Torah’s meaning. Nevertheless, I happen to agree.

Nice Features of the Book

  • Good looking paperback at affordable price; bulk rates available
  • Quality, easy-to-read print
  • Attractive, inviting cover that sincere believers will be curious about (Be sure to share that at the top of the cover is the Greatest Commandment of the Torah (Shema or “Hear, O Israel!”). Let them know that this is the traditional script as they would see on an actual Torah scroll.)
  • Not too big; 3 or 4 copies will fit easily into a briefcase, laptop case, etc… to have on hand for gifts
  • Hebrew or Greek words given when necessary, but never without clear English explanation
  • An excellent overview of the Torah’s daily, weekly, monthly, and annual “reminders” that our heavenly Father has given to all His people so that we might walk in His ways continually.
  • “How to Study and Teach the Torah” (Appendix B) gives clear, thorough, pastoral guidance for cultivation of healthy Bible study and teaching habits, as well as an orientation to the traditional reading cycle and its basic liturgical framework.

Expansions

There are three points in the book upon which I would like to expand.

1. I discern sharply between midrash and Semitic philology. This commitment, albeit more academic than pastoral, requires me to note that I assume a distinction between the Hebrew root for torah and the root for horeh, which the Berkowitz’s apparently do not make (p. xxii). This does not mean that they are incorrect. Rather, I will share the technical grammatical background for my distinction and leave interested Hebrew readers to decide for themselves.  I take the root of moreh (teacher) to be y-r-h (as with the noun Torah), but the root of Horeh (parent) to be h-r-h. Though the authors do not make the claim, one might be tempted to see the holem-vav in the word moreh and the holem-vav in the word horeh as equivalent. This is not the case. The holem-vav in horeh is the formative vowel for most qal participles, and is not part of the root. However, the holem-vav in moreh is a special-case participle form of a peh-yod root within binyan hi‘fil. It is part of the root. While these words look and even sound similar, I see them as etymologically distinct. Hence the Berkowitz’s teaching points connecting these words are midrashic in nature, and serve well the purpose of instruction and easy memorization of the important parental obligation to teach their children God’s Word. But I maintain an insistence on distinguishing roots, so that for instance one would not confuse the identical Hebrew words moreh (teacher/instructor, from y-r-h), and moreh (rebellious/disobedient, from m-r-h) as in Deut. 21:18.

2. Though no claim to the contrary is made in the discussion of these terms (pp. 10-11), I want to add that “to fulfill” and “to abolish” (as employed in traditional Jewish exegesis) are given their ultimate, true definition only by Yeshua the Messiah Himself. There was not some official authority that determined whether a given Scripture was correctly interpreted or not; Jewish teachers did not always agree on what “fulfilled” or “abolished” a written commandment. In fact, we know from Scripture that some respected leaders thought Yeshua had broken the Shabbat. Of course, we know He did not. Thus, His interpretation did not always agree with that of contemporary Torah teachers.

3. We are remained that no one can obey the Torah perfectly (pp. 16-17), and that there is a necessity to discern and correct inappropriate attitudes towards God law. Time and again Paul stresses that justification is based upon faith rather than “works of the Torah.” Excellent points worthy of repetition. I would only remind readers that Paul did not thus reason, “Since you cannot obey Torah perfectly, you have no obligation whatsoever,” though this assumption rears its head every once in a while. In addition, I follow Martin Abegg, Jr. in identifying “works of the Torah” as a technical term that some Jewish groups used to advertise their own community boundaries, distinguishing their “authentic” Torah ideology from that of other “incorrect” Jewish groups. This is quite different than believing, as N. T. Wright does, that “works of the Torah” refers to the written commandments themselves.

Concerning the Term “Intensity”

In the middle of Chapter Four, we read “…the elders [i.e., Jerusalem Council in Acts 15] could not demand that the gentile believers follow the Torah with the same intensity that they did.” (p. 70)

I really like the precision of the word choice in this sentence, and it’s worth a short discussion. Historically, some individuals have pursued a more “intense” lifestyle with respect to God’s Word/commandments than others. This intensity sets them apart. (Torah gives various pathways to pursuing intensity: voluntary offerings, meditating on/studying Scripture, fasting, oaths, nazarite vow; Yeshua teaches about fasting and praying as acceptable means of intensifying one’s relationship with the Father.)

Some “intensities” can become fixed, and thus “traditional,” which will further set one community apart from another. Look at observant Jewish communities today. “Torah intensity” first distinguishes (observant) Jew from non-observant Jew and Gentile. Styles of liturgy, clothing, tzitziyot, hat, kippah, etc… at times reflect institutionalized intensity. At some point, the intensity even starts to distinguish observant Jew from observant Jew. As the intensity increases further, the “truly” observant is distinguished from the not not-truly (or misguided) “observant.” At any place along the way, then, this “intensity” can become misconstrued as license to condemn another’s observance.

I liken this notion of “intensity” to “zeal.” Zeal is good when it’s for the right things! For example, Paul says “pursue love,” and the Torah says, “Pursue righteousness”! However, throughout the Gospels and Acts, this same verb is also used for wrong pursuit (that is, for the persecution of God’s people! As they did the prophets, etc…) Paul also says, “They have a zeal, but not according to knowledge…” With all this in mind, I applaud the Berkowitz’s appropriate choice to use the term “intensity” in this easily overlooked sentence. The elders of the Jerusalem Council trusted the working of the Holy Spirit and demonstrated great patience in receiving non-Jews into the fellowship of the Messiah. Weekly Sabbath rest and teaching would provide the proper pace, environment, and content for believing gentiles to learn and absorb the Torah of Moses lived and taught by Yeshua Himself.

Concluding Remarks

I am thankful to Hashem for leading Ariel and D’vorah to produce and release a fifth edition of Torah Rediscovered. I recommend it, but not just for your own edification. I encourage people to buy several and give them away as gifts to  friends and acquaintances: Jew, Gentile, believing or not. Ask our heavenly Father if there is someone in your sphere of influence who might be receptive to this book. Aside from the nice cover, there are several other quick conversation starters: the many instructive charts, a beautiful prayer for putting on tzitzit, a lovely translation of Psalm 78, a list of the annual Torah readings, and a glossary of important terms. Any one of these things could serve as an initial talking point.

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