If I told you that I recently had a spirited discussion with someone about “Yavneh,” I’m assuming that many of you would be wondering, “What in the world is Yavneh?” That’s an important question because what took place in the city of Yavneh many years ago had a massive impact upon Judaism as we know it today.
At a recent conference, an acquaintance of mine (whom I will refer to as Tracy) approached me about a presentation that I gave at a previous conference earlier in the year. In the earlier presentation, I was advocating for a positive view of Jewish tradition and that Messianic Jews should respect and generally adhere to the halachic (Jewish legal decisions) procedures of Judaism when it comes to how to do Torah as Messianic Jews. Tracy took issue with my position. Her point was that “pre-Yavneh” it was fine for Messianic Jews to follow the customs of the Jewish community. But after Yavneh, Messianic Jews should have nothing to do with traditional Judaism (other than to evangelize) and should look elsewhere for guidance as to what it means to live as a Jew.
Before I go further, let me briefly explain what took place at Yavneh. The city of Yavneh is in central Israel, and it served as the gathering point for the leaders of the Jewish people after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. It was in the city of Yavneh that the Jewish people had to figure out how to adapt Judaism to a time when there was no Temple, no functioning priesthood, and Jewish people who were becoming increasingly dispersed. In other words, it was at Yavneh that Judaism had to figure out how to survive in light of a radical change in circumstances. Simply stated, Yavneh was the birthplace of modern Judaism, which is a Judaism that has had to sustain itself in a state of dispersion and lack of central institution, namely, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
From Tracy’s perspective, Yavneh took place because the Jewish people had rejected Jesus. Presumably, in her mind, if the Jews had embraced Jesus, Yavneh would not have been needed because Jesus would have ushered in the fullness of God’s kingdom. I can follow this line of reasoning. Indeed, Yavneh was necessary because the Jewish people had to determine how to do Torah/Judaism in a state of exile after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Though I won’t oversimplify the multi-layered cause of why the Second Temple was destroyed and why the exile happened, I agree that if the Jewish people had embraced Yeshua, then exile and judgment would have been avoided.
But here’s the rub: As a people, we did reject Yeshua. That is tragic, and the consequences of that have been devastating. Despite this national decision, however, the life of the Jewish people continued after our rejection of Yeshua and after the destruction of the Temple. And life for the Jewish people had to go on, according to God.
In the Bible, God has promised that the Jewish people will always be present (Jeremiah 31:35-37). If the Jewish people are always going to be present, then the Torah must still be our guide because God designated the Torah as the legislation that defines and sustains the Jewish people. If we grant what I’ve said thus far—namely, that the Jewish people must still be and that the Torah still represents our marching orders—then Yavneh was necessary because the Jewish people had to re-organize and chart the course as to exactly how we would survive and do Torah/Judaism with no Temple and in a state of dispersion.
Yavneh was essential to the survival of the Jewish people! This doesn’t mean that I have to agree with every decision that took place at Yavneh or with every decision that was made after Yavneh. Within Judaism, there is certainly room for different opinions and debate! But overall, I see that the path that was forged at Yavneh very much speaks to every Jew since Yavneh. Here’s why: Because we are Jews, the Torah is our God-given constitution. At Yavneh, we began the process of figuring out how to survive as a distinct, sustainable, Torah-keeping community in the midst of a long and harsh exile. If Torah still represents our marching orders as Messianic Jews, then generally speaking we need to honor and adhere to the way that the Jewish community has navigated that path—even after Yavneh.
Now, there is a really big key to this whole exchange with Tracy. It’s fairly easy and reasonable for Tracy to reject the value and need for post-Yavneh Judaism because Tracy also rejects the ongoing validity of the Torah for the Jewish people after the death of Yeshua. I understand her reasoning. Since Tracy thinks that Yeshua did away with the Torah, then there certainly is no need for what took place at Yavneh. Why would one need to figure out how to do Torah/Judaism if Torah/Judaism is no longer a valid expression? Through the years, my observation has been that this is often the tip of the spear in these discussions. Often folks have a negative view of the rabbis, Jewish tradition, and halachah because they think that it is completely unnecessary since the Torah itself is unnecessary.
Here’s the heart of the issue, which I expressed to Tracy. If you take away Torah and halachah from the Jewish people, you end up with a form of replacement theology. When I communicated this to Tracy, she went through the roof! How dare I accuse her of being associated with replacement theology! Now, I know that Tracy does not believe that the church has replaced Israel, and I appreciate that. However, if you take away Torah, and you take away the Jewish community’s ability to make communal decisions about how we are going to do Torah (which is halachah), then you have no way of having a unified system of Torah/Judaism that can define and sustain the Jewish people. Without a unified Judaism, every person is on their own to figure out how to do Torah. And then you have nothing—no continuity between Jewish communities and no continuity between generations. This is a hard pill for many to swallow, but many of the strongest opponents of replacement theology still have anti-Judaism and anti-Torah ideas deeply embedded in their paradigm. The reality on the ground is that those “anti” ideas produce the same result as the popular form of replacement theology.
I concluded my conversation with Tracy by asking her, “In your mind, what would keep my kids Jewish?” Her answer was that my kids would stay Jewish by me passing on Jewish values and stories to them. Sorry, but that will not sustain my children’s Jewish identity. Bagels and lox won’t either. It is Torah and our communal traditions that have sustained us and will continue to sustain us until Yeshua returns. That started at Yavneh. And though Yavneh is complicated, it was used by God to keep the Jewish people on the path of survival.