“Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” He was also saying to them, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition.” (Mark 7:8-9)
The Master criticized some of the Pharisees for neglecting the commandment of God in order to observe a tradition. He formulated His criticism with two parallel statements.
The two rebukes seem virtually identical, but on closer examination, they reflect two different aspects of concern:
- Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.
- You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition.
In the first criticism, Rabbi Yeshua charged the Jerusalemites with neglecting the commandments of the Torah for the sake of keeping tradition. In other words, their interpretation of the Torah caused them to lose sight of some of the larger, more important directives of Torah. In any field of human interest, rapt attention to a particular set of details might easily result in a loss of perspective where one “cannot see the forest for the trees.” For example, the theologian who works out all the fine nuances of a systematic theology might be, at the same time, a nasty husband and negligent father.
In the second criticism, Rabbi Yeshua charged the Pharisees with intentionally prioritizing a particular interpretation of theirs above a conflicting commandment from the Torah. In other words, when they encountered a situation where an obligation to a commandment contradicted an established sectarian precedent, they opted to allow their sectarian rule to supersede the commandment. This second criticism is the more serious of the two. A person might inadvertently neglect a particular commandment while upholding a certain interpretation of another commandment, but to intentionally set aside a commandment for the sake of upholding a sectarian rule implies willful disobedience.
These criticisms do not infer a blanket condemnation or disregard for Jewish law or tradition. On the contrary, the Master criticized the tradition of the Pharisees only when He believed that their application of the law ranked matters of ritual sanctity and ceremonial concern above moral and ethical concerns. By all indications, Yeshua and His apostles walked in accordance with the body of Jewish tradition and legal rulings of their day, deviating only when necessary for the sake of according compassion and dignity to human beings.
Gospel readers typically assume the opposite. From a casual reading of the Gospels, it seems that Yeshua and the apostles chafed against Jewish tradition and continually tangled with the Pharisees over legal rulings. This impression results from reading the New Testament outside of Judaism rather than within Judaism. The Gospels record the conflict stories only because conformity to the rest of Jewish tradition can be assumed. Since the gospel writers were themselves practicing Jews, they felt no need to record all the stories about Yeshua and His disciples doing normal Jewish things according to the normal Jewish way. An incident from the life of the Master became memorable and worth recording when He deviated from the Jewish norm. No Jewish writer would feel compelled to record page after page about Yeshua doing the same things every Jew did.
The same is true in the Mishnah and Talmud. Those volumes of Jewish law primarily record points of conflict, not conformity. Page after page of legal dispute might create the impression that no consensus ever existed among the sages, but instead, the reader understands that the arguments are internal, within Judaism, not in contradiction to Judaism. We should read the Gospels with the same assumptions. The Master’s argument with the Pharisees about handwashing sounds similar to the legal argumentation that constitutes the seemingly endless pages of the Talmud.