I asked over at Jewish Life & Learning, “Who determines the kosher status of new foods, like Jell-O?”
The question reveals a bit about how the Jewish community determines whether something is kosher. But it raises a question for Yeshua-believers: Who determines what’s acceptable for Yeshua’s disciples?
Quick run-down of the kosher Jell-O issue: the gelatin used in these products can be derived from animal bone or animal skin, and those animals may or may not be kosher animals. To muddy the waters further, the gelatin undergoes a chemical separation process that produces a new substance that may or may not meet Orthodox guidelines for kosher status. Further, there’s more debate about the gelatin issue, since the substance is not derived from the flesh of unclean animals. It’s one of those mucky, gray issues.
This official explanation from Kraft Foods, the makers of Jell-O states they’ve received a kosher certification from a recognized Orthodox rabbi:
"JELL-O Brand gelatin is certified as Kosher by a recognized orthodox Rabbi as per enclosed RESPONSUM. In addition to being Kosher, Jell-O is also Pareve, and can be eaten with either a meat meal or a dairy meal."
The person asking the question then received a copy of the kosher certification given by 2 Orthodox Rabbis:
Included [in this response is a] sheet with a copy of "The Halachic Basis of our Kashruth Certification of Atlantic Gelatin and the General Foods Products containing this Gelatin" by Rabbi Yehuda Gershuni & Rabbi David Telsner. The upshot is that since the collagen has been taken apart by the chemical digestion and a new substance has been produced it meets the specifications of the Orthodox Dietary Laws and is Kosher and Pareve.
Essentially, the makers of Jell-O are saying, “We received a kosher certification from a recognized Orthodox rabbi, and therefore, we’re kosher, and we’ll put a ‘K’ symbol on our product.”
Is that enough for the Jewish world, that just one or two Orthodox rabbis regard something as kosher?
As it turns out, no. At least according to the answers at Jewish Life & Learning, most religious Jews go with the way consensus from respected kosher-ruling organizations like the Orthodox Union, which deemed Jell-O as treif, not kosher, going against the ruling of those Orthodox Rabbis who approved Jell-O.
It got me thinking, though: who determines what’s kosher, or on a bigger scale, who determines what’s acceptable for us as Yeshua’s disciples? If we have some disagreement, is there a way to get a ruling from trusted, faithful individuals in our community?
We could use our best judgment based on our understanding of the Scriptures and make a judgment call. Alternately, we could look to some trusted authority on the matter. Both seem reasonable and could be argued from Scripture.
In the Messianic world, these two different options before us have resulted in two different forms of Torah observance: sola scriptura (Bible only), or halachically-informed (Bible, plus rulings of religious authorities). In the broad Messianic world, Hebrew Roots folks tend to be sola scriptura, while Messianic Judaism folks tend to be halachically-informed.
Hebrew Roots and sola scriptura Torah observance
Hebrew roots folks would be quick to go right to the Scriptures. (Praise God!)
But the problem is, the Scriptures don’t provide explicit guidance on this. Is it the flesh of an animal that’s unclean, or anything from the animal? If it’s anything from the animal, does that mean footballs (“pigskins”) are unclean? If so, doesn’t that also make the Tabernacle/Temple unclean, since skins from unclean animals were used in its construction? Some may give absolute answers from the Scriptures, but it’s difficult to give truly absolute answers solely from the Scriptures when the Scriptures were written in a time when, for example, there was no mechanically-produced food, no food industry, no fast food restaurants.
For sola scriptura Torah observance, then, the matter isn’t clear cut.
Messianic Judaism and halachically-informed Torah observance
For many in the Messianic Judaism movement, the answer to this question of how to follow the Torah is, “We are in solidarity with the rest of Israel.” (Praise God!)
In practice, this means following the general Jewish world’s consensus and rulings. In our Jell-O example, since the Orthodox Union (OU), a recognized kosher certification organization, says some food is not kosher, their ruling is accepted by the majority of the religious Jewish world. And if the Jewish world consensus is that Jell-O is not kosher, then neither is it kosher for Jewish followers of Jesus in the Messianic Judaism movement.
The problem with that line of thinking is, the rest of the Jewish world thinks Jewish believers in Jesus aren’t kosher.
“So what?”, you might say, “we’ll just keep on being in solidarity with the Jewish world.”
This creates a logical problem, in which you’re bound to follow the rulings of some trusted authority, but you then must discard the rulings of that authority when it deals with certain issues, like issues about who the Messiah is and who his followers are. In other words, that authority is no longer trusted. Not honestly.
It gets even worse: what happens when the rulings of that trusted body conflict with the teachings of the Messiah? This creates more tension still, because it suggests that the “trusted authority” should not be so trusted, maybe even distrusted, since Messiah rejected at least some of their rulings.
Scripture has a guideline here
If we look at the Scriptures, I know of two examples that serve as a precedent. The first is in the Torah, trusted leaders from the community were appointed to solve religious disputes. This is what the Jewish world has done, and it would then seem that Messianic Judaism folks have it right in following them.
But the second example modifies this: Acts 15 ruling body. In the New Testament, the trusted leaders from the community of Messiah’s followers came together to rule on an unclear matter.
We can glean a few principles from this: first, the Scriptures support the idea of trusted leaders ruling on unclear matters. (Sorry, Hebrew Roots folks!)
And secondly, the Scriptures support the idea of Messiah’s followers making rulings independent of the Jewish world’s. (Sorry, Messianic Judaism folks!)
So, if what I just said is true, if the Scripture does support the idea of trusted leaders from our community ruling on unclear religious matters, for followers of Yeshua, where is that ruling body?
The single most organized attempt for a body of trusted leaders from our community was that of the Catholic Church and it’s cardinals, bishops, and pope. But the abuses of the Catholic Church sent many running far away, wishing they never had appointed that authority in the first place. It set in stone the suspicion of centralized authority that remains with us today, particularly in Protestant Christianity and the Hebrew Roots movement.
Do Messiah’s disciples need a body of trusted leaders to rule on unclear matters? I believe it does, and I believe there’s a Scriptural precedence, but the problem is that it’s damn near impossible to get 2 religious people to agree on anything, let alone 2 billion. The question then becomes whether the improbabily of a success should stop us from trying.