Catholic Jews and the Jewish Law

Part II: Did Jesus Suspend the Observance of the Law?

See Part I: Jesus and His Disciples Kept the Law

The Church has traditionally taught that the New Covenant fulfilled the Law of Moses and set it aside. The arguments used to support this position have been both Biblical and doctrinal. The Biblical arguments cite the doctrines of St. Paul and interpret certain teachings or acts of Jesus in a way that implies the abrogation of the Law. The purpose of this article is to examine some of the Biblical arguments in support of the traditional doctrine that exempts, not only the Gentile, but even the baptized Jew from keeping the Law of the Torah. We will examine here certain episodes which have been interpreted to show that Jesus suspended the observance of the Law. In the next article, we will examine certain passages from the epistles of Paul and the Epistle to the Hebrews.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church itself acknowledges that Jesus did not abrogate the Law or introduce any new external laws:

The Law of the Gospel fulfills the commandments of the Law. The Lord's Sermon on the Mount, far from abolishing or devaluing the moral prescriptions of the Old Law, releases their hidden potential and has new demands arise from them: it reveals their entire divine and human truth. It does not add new external precepts, but proceeds to reform the heart, the root of human acts, where man chooses between the pure and the impure, where faith, hope, and charity are formed and with them the other virtues. The Gospel thus brings the Law to its fullness through imitation of the perfection of the heavenly Father, through forgiveness of enemies and prayer for persecutors, in emulation of the divine generosity. (CCC 1968)

The Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews points out in a document issued in 1985, Notes on the correct way to present the Jews and Judaism in preaching and catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church, that Jesus was an observant Jew who "wished to submit himself to the Law" and instructed his disciples to obey the Law. When we read the episodes in which Jesus appears to be violating the Law or challenging the authority of the law, a reading of the Biblical text that is informed by familiarity with Jewish tradition reveals that Jesus’ opinion in matters of Law never violated the legal framework of Pharisaic Judaism.

Jesus and Kashrut

And [Jesus] said to them, "Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?" (Thus he declared all foods clean.) (Mark 7:18-19)

Jesus was an observant JewThis passage has often been cited to show that Jesus abrogated the laws of forbidden foods.

Even before we examine the episode, there are two obvious objections to this interpretation. First of all, we never see that any of the disciples ever claims that Jesus abrogated the Laws of kashrut. On the contrary, Peter testifies that he has never eaten unkosher food, the Christian Jews were “zealous for the Law,” and even Paul, who had every reason to cite this episode if Jesus had really suspended the obligation to eat kosher food—even Paul never mentions it. Surely, in his controversy with the Judaizers and his confrontation with St. Peter in Galatians, he would have mentioned this incident if Jesus had intended to abrogate the Laws of kashrut. So if Jesus actually did suspend the laws of Kashrut, he failed to communicate it to his disciples even though here, in Mark 7, he is addressing them! And to say that Jesus suspended the laws of Kashrut, but that no one knew it, raises grave questions about the meaning of Sacred Tradition.

Kashrut is an ancient Biblical observance that was at the center of the daily life of the Jewish people. A Gentile or a Jew who does not keep kosher cannot imagine how shocking and significant such a declaration would have been. It would have struck at the very center, the very heart of Jewish faith and custom. It would have been BIG NEWS. If Jesus had intended to abrogate the Laws of forbidden foods, he wouldn’t have done it in a private statement to the disciples (which they seem to have forgotten) and in such an ambiguous way. To suspend a practice so clearly required by the Bible, and so deeply entrenched in the Jewish way of life, Jesus would have had to make a comparably clear and emphatic statement that what was once forbidden is now allowed.

Mark begins the seventh chapter with a discussion of pious custom practiced by learned Pharisees and their disciples of eating food in a state of ritual purity. Some Pharisees ask Jesus why his students are not keeping this custom, and Jesus responds by saying that those who keep this custom have misplaced their devotion, as though they believed that man was morally defiled by what when into his mouth (ritually impure food) rather than what came out of it (the many ways a person can sin with his tongue). Jesus proves his point by citing an incident in which a young man used his tongue to avoid supporting his needy father, and the rabbis supported him. (I came across a commentary that pointed out that the rabbis of the Talmud take Jesus’ position. The Pharisees with whom Jesus is disputing here are not the Pharisees who are remembered as the revered sages of the Mishnah and Talmud, the Pharisees whose teachings are the foundation of Judaism as we know it. The name Pharisee applied to a wide range of people. The one thing they had in common was that they believed in the authority of rabbis to interpret the law and legislate in the name of G-d. But the Talmud provides us with a simple way of distinguishing between the Pharisees who hated Jesus and the Pharisees who befriended and even consulted with him, for it explains that, during the period preceding the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis forgot that the purpose of the Law was communion with G-d. As the Talmud puts it: they failed to recite the blessing that should be recited before Torah study that acknowledges that the Law is from G-d and that its purpose is the interior sanctification of those who keep it. It is just those rabbis who opposed Jesus. Of course, not all the rabbis forgot the meaning of the Law. Rabbi Gamliel, for example, the greatest Pharisee of his time who defended St. Peter and the Apostles when they were brought before the Counsel of the High Priest is often cited in the Talmud. The sages of the Mishnah and the Talmud, like Rabbi Gamliel, were those who knew that the purpose of the Law was the inner sanctification of those who practice it, and, in that respect, they shared Jesus concept of the Law. That, indeed, is why Jesus could entrust his disciples to their instruction [Matt. 23:1-3].)

Note that Jesus never mentions forbidden foods, i.e., unkosher foods, as opposed to ritually impure foods. Unkosher foods are the flesh of animals which the Torah forbids us to eat. But even the flesh of animals that the Torah permits can become ritually impure. A dead animal that has not been ritually slaughtered is ritually impure, and the flesh of a ritually pure animal can be contaminated and become impure by contact with a ritually impure object. So, for example, a piece of meat that touches a cadaver becomes impure. It may also become ritually impure if it is cooked in a pot that it is impure (that is why Mark mentions the washing of pots at the beginning of this chapter). Food may also become ritually impure when a person eats without first ritually washing his hands. And when a person eats something ritually impure, he contaminates himself. Ritual purity has nothing to do with moral purity. It has nothing to do with sin. It is rather more a quality of the body rather than of the soul.

Jesus is applying the term defilement, which would ordinarily be applied to ritual impurity, to moral impurity. Apparently this was a novel application of the word. In any case, it is clear that he is using the term "defile" to mean corrupt morally. In that case, every rabbi who ever lived would agree with him: there is nothing that goes into a man's mouth that can cause moral corruption. It's what comes out of a person's mouth that defiles him and corrupts him morally. What goes into the mouth can cause only ritual defilement. The point of Jesus rebuke, it seems, is that people were far more careful to avoid the ritual defilement that can result from what they take into their mouths than the moral defilement which results from what goes forth from their mouths.  

There are no grounds for interpreting this passage in Mark as teaching that Jesus permitted unclean foods. He makes no mention of unclean foods at all. Nor is he denying the obligation of the priest to observe the laws of ritual purity. His teaching here is that ritual stringencies are a misplacement of piety when they are not associated with a corresponding dedication to moral purity and compassion.

But then, you might say that Jesus did make all foods clean because, if eating an unkosher meat is not morally corrupting, then why should it matter?

It doesn’t matter for the Gentile. It only matters for the Jew, because G-d never commanded the Gentiles, as He did the Jews, to avoid eating the flesh of certain animals. St. Thomas writes in (Summa Theologica Ia IIae q. 98 a. 5) that the “Old Law” included two basic categories of laws: natural law and laws that were added for the sanctification of the Jews.  The purpose of those precepts was to provide the Jewish people with “a prerogative of holiness in reverence for Christ Who was to be born of that people.” He compares the Jews to clerics who are bound by laws enacted for their “special sanctification”: “Clerics who are set aside for the service of God are bound to certain obligations to which the laity are not bound; likewise religious are bound by their profession to certain works of perfection, to which people living in the world are not bound. In like manner this people [the Jews] was bound to certain special observances, to which other peoples were not bound.”  

In the Summa Theologica (I. II. 102.6), St. Thomas discusses what he terms the ceremonial observances of the Bible. He explains that they were meaningful for two reasons: because they befitted the worship of G-d and because they foreshadowed something “touching the Christian mode of life.” In his reply to the first objection, that there was no reasonable cause for the laws that forbade eating the flesh of certain animals, St. Thomas explains the laws of forbidden meats in detail, showing how they befit the worship of G-d and foreshadow the Christian mode of life. He writes, “the Law distinguished a twofold pollution or uncleanness; one, that of sin, whereby the soul was defiled; and another consisting in some kind of corruption, whereby the body was in some way infected. Speaking then of the first-mentioned uncleanness, no kind of food is unclean, or can defile a man, by reason of its nature; wherefore we read (Matthew 15:11): "Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but what cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man": which words are explained (Matthew 15:17) as referring to sins. Yet certain foods can defile the soul accidentally; in so far as man partakes of them against obedience or a vow, or from excessive concupiscence; or through their being an incentive to lust, for which reason some refrain from wine and flesh-meat.” This is substantially the traditional Jewish interpretation of the laws of prohibited meats: that they defile the body in a way that makes it harder to open one’s heart to holiness.

St. Thomas gives a detailed explanation of the laws of forbidden meats in detail. We don’t have to accept all his interpretations to recognize that he clearly believed that the observance of kashrut had a real and important religious value, and that value, as he describes it, is no less relevant today than it was before the Resurrection.

Jesus and the Sabbath

There are many episodes in the Gospels in which Jesus is accused of violating the Sabbath, almost all them because of the healing he did. In order to understand these episodes correctly, we have to keep in mind that the rabbis prohibited healing lest it bring a person to grind medicines on the Sabbath, and grinding is a Biblical prohibition. In other words, the prohibition of healing was legislated as a fence around a Biblical prohibition (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sabbath 53b; see Rashi’s commentary). But the prohibition of healing as it was taught by the Pharisees of the Talmud and codified in later Jewish Law did not apply to serious illness. Why, then, did the Pharisees object to his acts of healing? Well, some Pharisees did, and some didn’t. There was a wide range of opinion on many issues among the Pharisees. For the purpose of our discussion, we can divide the Pharisees into two camps: those who opposed Jesus and those who didn’t. Clearly, when Jesus said,

"The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you…" (Matt. 23:2-3)

he didn’t have in mind the Pharisees who opposed his teachings. The reason he called for obedience to the teachings of the Pharisees is simple: a religious Jewish or Christian society needs external precepts, but Jesus didn’t teach the external precepts of the Law. That wasn’t his purpose. Rather, for the external precepts, he defers to the teachings of the Pharisees, i.e., the Pharisees who did not oppose him. Their Law of healing on the Sabbath, for example, as it appears in the Talmud, is substantially the same as the teaching of Jesus, i.e., where healing is required, it can be done. Indeed, many of the sayings of Jesus have a counterpart in rabbinical [Pharisaic] literature. Rabbi Gamaliel, who defends Peter and the Apostles in Acts 5, was the greatest Pharisaic rabbi of the time.

In Matthew 12 Jesus’ disciples are accused of violating the Sabbath when they plucked heads of grain to eat on the Sabbath. There, too, they were violating a rabbinic prohibition, because although harvesting is forbidden on the Sabbath, once the roots of the grain are dry the prohibition is rabbinic, and since the grain was about to be harvested, we can assume that it was ripe and dry when this episode occurred. Besides that, we have internal evidence that the issue at stake was a rabbinical prohibition.

[1] At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. [2] But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, "Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath." [3] He said to them, "Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry, and those who were with him: [4] how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? [5] Or have you not read in the law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are guiltless? [6] I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. (Matt 12:1-6)

In verse five, Jesus is apparently alluding to the principle that the rabbis exempted the priests serving in the Temple from keeping the “fences” around the Biblical Law that they legislated as a safeguard against the inadvertent violation of Biblical Sabbath laws (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Beitzah 11b). The rabbis believed that they could rely on the priests to observe the Biblical Law because, standing before the Presence of G-d in the Temple, they were sure to take it very seriously. In verses 5 and 6, Jesus refers to the exemption of the priests and argues that his own disciples should be exempted from the rabbinic prohibition that they were being accused of violating, because they were with him, and he was “something greater than the Temple.” Jesus is not giving two arguments here, but one: “When David and his companions were hungry, they were permitted to eat what was ordinarily permitted only to the priests. My disciples are hungry, and so they, too, should be permitted to do what the priest in the Temple would be allowed to do in order to eat in this situation: violate a rabbinic prohibition, since the reason that the rabbis exempted the priest applies to my disciples as well: they, too, are in the presence of the Temple—indeed, in something even greater than the Temple.”

Jesus had great respect for rabbinic Law. He doesn’t say, “Well, they’re only violating a rabbinic law, so what’s the big deal?” No, on the contrary, he is profoundly concerned to justify the conduct of his disciples within the framework of the Law.

Jesus does not teach that the prohibitions of work on the Sabbath can be violated for the sake of charity. The only thing (with the exception of the episode of plucking grain) he ever does for others that elicits accusations of violating the Sabbath is heal, and his teaching on healing on the Sabbath is substantially the same as the rabbinic teaching which is observed to this very day: healing is allowed. The Laws of the Sabbath obligate rest in imitation of G-d’s rest. That rest is defined by Biblical prohibitions that are not set aside in favor of works of charity. Barring life threatening emergencies, anything that would require the violation of the Sabbath must wait until the Sabbath is over. At the same time, because the Sabbath is a day of leisure, it is an opportunity to practice the many forms of charity which do not require the violation of the Sabbath. Indeed, the Sabbath itself is the source of charity, for it is the day of communion between G-d and the Jewish People, a day filled with the Divine grace which moves a person to charity. The Sabbath stands at the center of the Jewish experience of G-d, and, in that respect, may be compared to the Eucharist in Catholicism.

Peter’s Vision of the Animals

[9] …Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. [10] And he became hungry and desired something to eat; but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance [11] and saw the heaven opened, and something descending, like a great sheet, let down by four corners upon the earth. [12] In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. [13] And there came a voice to him, "Rise, Peter; kill and eat." [14] But Peter said, "No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean." [15] And the voice came to him again a second time, "What God has cleansed, you must not call common." [16] This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven. [17] Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision which he had seen might mean, behold, the men that were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon's house, stood before the gate [18] and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there. [19] And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, "Behold, three men are looking for you. [20] Rise and go down, and accompany them without hesitation; for I have sent them." [21] And Peter went down to the men and said, "I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?" [22] And they said, "Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house, and to hear what you have to say." [25] When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. [26] But Peter lifted him up, saying, "Stand up; I too am a man." [27] And as he talked with him, he went in and found many persons gathered; [28] and he said to them, "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. (Acts 10:9-28)

Peter’s dream has been interpreted as a message from Jesus that it is permitted to eat meats that are forbidden by the Torah. The problem is that here, just as in our discussion of Mark 7, Peter never communicates this message to the other apostles, and, in all likelihood, for a very good reason: he himself, does not interpret it as permitting forbidden foods, but rather, as permitting a forbidden contact between people: [28] and he said to them, "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean."

In any case, the vision is ambiguous. If Jesus had meant to teach him that forbidden foods are permitted, the vision should have presented him with only those animals which are forbidden to eat. Since they included all kinds of animals, they gave him the option of killing and eating the kosher animals among them. It is unthinkable that Biblical prohibitions that stand at the very center of Jewish religious life would be abrogated by an ambiguous message communicated in a waking dream. And if Peter had presented his dream as a message from Jesus suspending the laws of kashrut to the Jerusalem community they would have rejected it for good reason, indeed, for the same reason that the Church rejects revelations to individuals: it contradicted the word of G-d in the Bible. The issue of eating forbidden meats was to remain a real one for Christians for a long time. There is even a passage in the Didache which encourages abstinence from unkosher meats: “But concerning meat, bear that which thou art able to do. But keep with care from things sacrificed to idols, for it is the worship of the infernal deities.” [Didache 6:3, ca. 50-120 C.E.)

Go to Part I: Jesus and His Disciples Kept the Law