For I know how rebellious and stubborn you are. Behold, even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the LORD. How much more after my death! (Deuteronomy 31:27)
This passage is written as a kal vachomer, an argument going from the light to the heavy: If A is true, then how much more so is B also true. Moses recognized that if the Children of Israel rebelled and strayed against the Torah’s instruction while he was with them to take them by the hand and guide them in its requirements, how much more would they stray from it after his death. But who rebels against God’s commands and why?
There are generally two types of rebels. The first is the one who simply denies the truth and the authority of the Scripture and walks in outright rebellion against it. There’s nothing spectacular about this. There will be those in every generation who follow this path. The second type, however, is one who claims that Scripture is still authoritative, yet rationalizes his behavior based on his own interpretations, rather than following the mesorah, the accepted interpretations and traditions. This is the more deceptive road to a wayward life. Let’s explore the implications of this.
During the days of Moses it was easy for people to gain understanding of a particular matter of Torah. They could ask their questions and get an answer, “straight from the horse’s mouth.” Moses, the very one who transmitted the teaching of Torah, was with them and could authoritatively answer their questions. In our modern world, however, we don’t have the luxury of having Moses here to guide us and give us the “original” meaning of each and every passage of the Torah. So what do we do? Some may say, “We don’t need Moses. We have the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) to lead us into all truth!” But if it is as simple as that, why do we have thousands of interpretations and applications of the Scriptures from people claiming this very thing? Is this truly the leading of the Spirit of God, or our own spirit of stubbornness? Paul says that we are to cling to the mesorah that he passed down:
So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. (2 Thessalonians 2:15)
Tradition and traditional interpretations are not inherently bad. They often keep us from falling off the path and into the ditch. They keep us from following after our own way when we want to follow the easier route. Judaism has an unending supply of mesorah designed to help maintain proper interpretation and application of Torah. But is bucking against tradition really an act of rebellion?
Stubbornness (or being “stiff necked” as it literally reads) is a trait that signifies going one’s own way. Rather than yielding to the designated authority, a stiff-necked person follows his own path, making his own rules, living by his own values. Proverbs says, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Proverbs 18:2). A fool continues to say, “I don’t think it means that,” whereas wisdom begins with the fear of the LORD (Proverbs 9:10). Wisdom does not lie in rugged individualism, but listens to the counsel of many advisors (Proverbs 11:14).
Can there ever be new and novel interpretations of Scripture? Yes. But they can never supersede the pashat— the plain sense of the text. For instance, the Torah says, “You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day” (Exodus 35:3). There is a midrashic interpretation based off of this verse that says we should not engage in quarreling on the Sabbath. However, if we interpret this to only apply to quarreling and ignore the literal meaning of the text, then we have uprooted the foundation of the Torah. In Yeshua’s words, we have “abolished” it.
Unfortunately, a large segment of those who claim to be practicing Messianic Judaism take this approach. Why? Because it’s comfortable and easy. We believe that if we only obey the “spirit” of the law, then we can ignore the “letter” of the law. But this is not how it works. In order to obey the spirit of the law, one first has to obey the letter. Only when one first obeys the literal meaning of the commandment and then goes above and beyond its requirement does he fulfill the spirit of the law. To ignore either the pashat or the mesorah, one is simply walking in a more comfortable form of rebellion.
Moses is gone. We can choose to live out the Torah based on our own understandings, or turn to the wisdom of those who have gone before us and handed down both interpretation and tradition that have withstood the test of time. The choice is ours.