Building Fences

I have recently finished listening to Arnold Fruchtenbaum’s study Life of Messiah from a Jewish Perspective which I found to be very interesting. A theme that Dr. Fruchtenbaum would come back to on a regular basis was the Pharisees’ approach to interpreting and following the Mosaic Law and how Jesus Christ would attack it. I won’t go into a lot of detail here (partially because I am no expert on the subject) but the study did spur me to think about how we Christians do the same things that the Pharisees did without even thinking about it (bad on us).

After the Jews returned to the land from the Babylonian exile they thought a lot about why they had been punished by God. The answer, they decided, was that they had not obeyed the Mosaic Law so God had moved against them. To make sure this never happened again they decided to “build a fence” around the Law so Israel could never violate it again. This fence developed into what is now the Talmud (only the Mishnah had been developed at the time of Christ’s ministry). The thing that Christ kept hammering them on is that observing  the Law isn’t just an external thing (keeping the Sabbath, animal sacrifices, food codes, etc.) but there was a proper mental attitude that went along with it. This lack of proper perspective led to the national rejection of the Messiah and the eventual destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

The strange thing is, that while I was listening to Dr. Fruchtenbaum teach on this, I could actually understand why the Rabbis started down that path. This was a strange feeling since rabbinic thinking is often inscrutable to me. I have often thought that if the U.S. would only get its act together, and return to the principles we were founded on, that we would be able to avoid the Divine discipline that surely seems headed our way.

As I will often do, I decided to do some searching and see what I could find about the Jewish “fence building” around the Law. I soon found a site named Judaism 101 which provided me with the detail I was looking for:

Mitzvoth D’Rabbanan: Laws Instituted by the Rabbis

In addition to the laws that come directly from Torah (d’oraita), halakhah includes laws that were enacted by the rabbis (d’rabbanan). These rabbinic laws are still referred to as mitzvot (commandments), even though they are not part of the original 613 mitzvot d’oraita. Mitzvoth d’rabbanan are considered to be as binding as Torah laws, but there are differences in the way we apply laws that are d’oraita and laws that are d’rabbanan (see below).

Mitzvoth d’rabbanan are commonly divided into three categories: gezeirah, takkanah and minhag.

A gezeirah is a law instituted by the rabbis to prevent people from accidentally violating a Torah mitzvah. We commonly speak of a gezeirah as a “fence” around the Torah. For example, the Torah commands us not to work on Shabbat, but a gezeirah commands us not to even handle an implement that you would use to perform prohibited work (such as a pencil, money, a hammer), because someone holding the implement might forget that it was Shabbat and perform prohibited work. The word is derived from the root Gimel-Zayin-Reish, meaning to cut off or to separate.

From “Halakhah: Jewish Law

I want to tie this in with an example of what I consider to be Christian gezeirah. I suppose my two or three regular visitors may disagree with this example (that’s fine) and I encourage you to add your comments. The example comes from an article written by Phil Johnson at the PyroManiacs web site on gambling. He is, of course, very much against gambling in any form and at the top of his article (to read the entire series follow the link to “Is Gambling OK? Don’t Bet on It”) he lists three reasons for it being wrong:

  1. The absence of a single commandment or proof-text against gambling ultimately proves nothing.There are lots of things that are not explicitly mentioned in the Bible that we would probably agree are clearly sinful.
    There isn’t anything in Scripture that forbids arson, for example. But we know arson is wrong because it violates other biblical principles. It’s a violation of the commandment in Leviticus 19:18: “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”
    As a matter of fact, even thinking about burning down your neighbor’s property violates Zechariah 8:17: “Let none of you imagine evil in your hearts against his neighbour . . . [for] these are things that I hate, saith the Lord.” So I don’t think anyone would seriously argue that arson is OK, just because it isn’t named in the Bible as a sin. Ditto with recreational drug use, graffiti-vandalism, and a host of other societal evils.
  2. Gambling is inconsistent with biblical virtue. It is fueled by—and it fuels—covetousness, greed, and materialism. It is associated with crime, vice and corruption, so that wherever gambling exists, crime rates rise. And it is contrary to the biblical work ethic, because it is an attempt to gain wealth without working for it.
  3. Our possessions are not our own to squander. They are given to us as a stewardship, and we will be accountable to God for how we use them. To put God-given resources at risk is to fail in the faithfulness required of stewards.

I do agree with his first point, there are things that we are not allowed to do that aren’t spelled out explicitly in scripture. However I do have quibbles with points two and three.  Is gambling “fueled by—and it fuels—covetousness, greed, and materialism?” It can be but this isn’t necessarily so. I have gambled before and, having statistical training, knew that I was going to walk out of the casino without the money I set aside for gambling that night. It’s hard to make the case that this was fueled by my “covetousness, greed, and materialism.”

The third point also leaves me unconvinced. I went to the movies over Christmas with my family and watched the new Sherlock Holmes movie that was just released. I knew before going to the movie that there would be nothing spiritually redeeming about the movie. And, rather than risking my God given resources, it was a slam bang guaranteed waste. Was going to the movie wrong because of this? Do we have to follow an almost monastic lifestyle to be good stewards of God’s provisions? No, I don’t see how that is so. I will say that gambling can be bad stewardship if God means for you to spend the money on something else (like feeding your family) but isn’t necessarily so.

In the entire series of articles on gambling it appeared to me like Phil Johnson was building fences to protect the good from the bad. This sure seems to me to be an example of Christian gezeirah.

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