Torah Keeping is a Gradient, Not a Binary

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Break the binaryChristians, Jews, and we Messianics in between speak about Torah observance like an on/off switch: you’re either Torah observant, or not. Torah observance as a binary.

Orthodox Jews say they have Torah in the “on” position.

Christians will say they are not under the Law: Torah in the “off” position.

But the truth is, nearly every person on earth is Torah observant.

Torah observance is not on/off binary. It’s a gradient scale:
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This isn’t universalist every-path-leads-to-God kumbaya nonsense.

Nope. It’s describing reality:

  • Loving God wholeheartedly? That’s Torah.
  • Loving your neighbor as yourself? That’s Torah.
  • Abstaining from sexual immorality? That’s Torah.
  • You're not swindling, cheating, or hating? That’s Torah.
  • Caring for the widow and orphan? That’s Torah.
  • Visiting the sick and caring for the oppressed? That’s Torah.
  • Honoring your mother and father? That’s Torah.
  • Not stealing or murdering? That’s Torah.

And these aren’t just some minor details. Most of these are weightier matters of the Torah, involving justice, mercy, faithfulness. These are the big ‘uns. Smile

This truth – that nearly all humanity keeps Torah on some level – leads us to some surprising realizations.

  1. No one keeps 100% of the Torah. Not even the most stringent of the Haredim.
  2. Christians are Torah observant. Less so than Messianics and Orthodox Jews, yes, but more than the secular world.
  3. All humanity is Torah observant to a degree, probably because God has written on the human conscience the basics of morality.

Nobody keeps 100% of the Torah

I’ve often heard this used as an excuse for why Christians aren’t (supposedly!) Torah observant (even through they are).

But it’s a bad excuse, in the same way that “I’m unable to follow 100% of the laws of the United States government, so why try?” is also a bad excuse.

While it’s not an excuse to avoid the Torah, it is nonetheless true: no one keeps 100% of the Torah.

This is two ways: first, not all commandments apply to everyone. (Commandments specific to farmers, or to priests.)

But it’s also true no one keeps all the commandments that do apply to them! There are cultural and external factors that stop people from keeping commandments that apply to them. The Temple is destroyed, so you don’t bring offerings to God in it. You don’t live in Israel, so you don’t make aliyah to Israel 3 times a year. The culture has changed, so even the most stringent Ultra-Orthdox Jew doesn’t observe the laws regarding levirate marriage.

Christians are Torah observant

Christians are some of the most charitable, faithful, generous giving people in the world.

A few years ago when I was working with youth homeless shelters as part of my software job, I saw the organizations who were providing hot meals, shelter, and medical care to homeless youth. Organizations like Lutheran Social Services. Catholic Charities. Salvation Army. Loaves and Fishes. Park Community Church.

Not all the organizations were Christian. Some were secular. There was even a few Islamic organizations. But by and large? Christian churches and outreaches were feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick.

That’s Torah.

I no longer believe that Christians aren’t Torah observant. When Christians protest, “We’re not under the Law!”, I think they are doing themselves a disservice. Because they’re going above and beyond the Law, keeping the Torah as Yeshua did: by being a servant.

It’s true Christians don’t keep kosher. They mostly don’t keep the Biblical Chagim/Feasts. They don’t keep the Sabbath. (Unless you count things like Chik-Fil-A closing on Sundays. Wrong day, but points for trying.) But as great as kosher, Feasts, and Shabbat are, those are not the weighty matters of the Torah.

I call on my readers to keep these in mind when speaking with or about Christians.

All humanity keeps basic Torah principles

In Paul’s letter to Rome, chapter 1, he says God will judge every person, because no person is without excuse; God is visible in nature. In Paul’s words, “What can be known about God is plain to everyone—for God has shown it to them. His invisible attributes—His eternal power and His divine nature—have been clearly seen ever since the creation of the world, being understood through the things that have been made.”

I’ve pondered these words for months. I believe Paul is saying that all people intrinsically know basic morality. People know murdering an innocent is wrong. People know cruelty is wrong. Rape is wrong. And so on.

Why does virtually every human being know this? Evolutionary anthropologists would argue these are evolved traits rising from societal gains. I argue its source is out of this world. SmileGod has put in every human conscience what we might call “Torah basics.” This is why nearly every culture and language has some basic morality, where murder, theft, rape, and more is outlawed or otherwise suppressed.

Takeaways for Messianic people

God cares about how much Torah we keep. The “gradient scale” spoken of here is describing reality on the ground, not the ideal from above.

Torah observance as a gradient doesn’t mean God is fine with you ignoring the Bible. No, God calls humanity to perfection – that’s the ideal. Perfection would be keeping every commandment that applies to you in the way that God wants you to apply them, and according to a divine priority and weightiness, where certain commandments overrule others.

“Gradient” speaks of the reality on the ground: humanity isn’t perfect. Every person hasn’t kept the Torah perfectly, though nearly every person on earth keeps some of it, by instinct or secular law or faith conviction.

Given that reality, and given that Christians are keeping a great deal of Torah already should have some implications for how we talk about Christianity and Judaism.

We often get into debates about the role of Torah for today. We often chide Christians for their lack of Torah keeping, or their negative attitude towards it. Christians often return the favor, calling Torah keepers as heretics, legalists, and worse.

(This problem is present in the Jewish world, too, with Orthodox sects keeping Torah in a more stringent way, where Reform sects keep in less according to the letter and even re-interpreting it in each generation.)

These issues will keep coming up, and we are right to wrestle with them: how to keep the Torah, what we can keep in the 21st century, what parts of the Torah to major on, and so on. But when we wrestle with them, let’s avoid the temptation to demonize our “opponents.”

Our “opponents” are trying to apply the Bible to their lives in a meaningful way. And moreover, both Jews and Christians are our brothers. Family disputes will happen, but let’s remain family and not cut people out of God’s Kingdom. I suspect when Messiah arrives and brings his long-awaited nation, we will see many people who believed – and applied the Torah – differently than we.

Keep these broad mercies of God in mind the next time we speak of believers on the other side of the fence.

Israeli Messianic leader: “Keeping Torah is Heresy”

Update 1: I spoke with Mr. Bass today and he clarified, “It is heresy if you believe that all believers should keep Torah…to be righteous.

This still presents a problem: while Paul says righteousness comes by trusting in Messiah, James continues that our righteousness is proven by works. I’ve asked Mr. Bass to clarify whether he considers “righteousness proven by Torah” to be heresy. I’ve also asked if he believes Torah plays any role for believers, aside from ethnic sensitivities. I’ll update this if I hear back.

Update 2: I asked directly whether Torah plays any role for believers in Yeshua, and Mr. Bass has replied with, “It is not incumbent upon believers -- whether Jewish or Gentile -- to keep the Law of Moses as it is written.”

Update 3: One of Mr. Bass’ defenders, Aaron Hecht, has now posted a new article, It’s Not a Sin, But…, in which he defends Mr. Bass’ view and points out issues in Torah observance. Some of his criticisms are true, and Aaron and I have a friendly conversation in the comments, in which we do find some common ground.

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Messiah faith in Israel has a long way to go. As it stands today, it’s largely ethnic Evangelicalism. Ethnic evangelicalism isn’t bad – it turns people to God – but it is terribly short of Israel’s unique calling.

When I first came to Israel, I visited a large congregation that spent 2 minutes on reading the Torah, and the next 30 minutes on preaching about why we should give money to the congregation. They had really great worship music.

When I returned to Israel a few years later, I visited another well-known congregation in northern Israel. They spent about 60 seconds speed-reading a Torah portion – zero study or commentary – then preached for the next hour about how we have victory in Jesus.

I couldn’t help but feel the Torah reading was a token gesture.

Last week, Howard Bass’ new post in Kehila News downplayed Torah further, suggesting that Torah observance is actually heresy.

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Howard Bass is the leader of נחלת ישוע Nachalat Yeshua (Yeshua’s Inheritance) congregation in Be’er Sheva, Israel.

His post on heresy included all the usuals: denying God, Messiah, the Bible, etc. But it also included – drum roll please – Torah observance as heresy.

According to Mr. Bass, the well-known and respected Israeli Messianic congregation leader, keeping Torah is heresy. Here’s the relevant piece of his post:

A heretical teaching does not line up with the plain teaching of the Word of God:

- YHVH is not the one and only true God…

- The Bible is not the authoritative written Word of God…

- Jesus was not fully human…

- Jesus was not fully God…

- Gentile and Jewish believers must keep the “Torah” in order to live as Jesus lived, and, therefore, be righteous, even if it is said by the false teachers on this subject not to be a salvation issue, and that we are saved by our faith in the name of the Son of God, the Lord Yeshua the Messiah. They are teaching another gospel, sowing confusion and division. This is heresy, which made the Apostle Paul very upset! (Acts 15:23-29; Gal) This is not the same as someone, for the sake of the gospel, living in a manner acceptable to an ethnic population or a religious group, in order that they might be more open to listen to the gospel. But Paul was also free among any people group for that very reason, and always under the law of Messiah. He never went against God’s word and wisdom in order to appeal to sinners. “Torah-keeping” does not promote the one new man in Messiah; and the Law of Messiah by His cross is the ‘one Law’ that all believers as a new creation live under.

I want to read Mr. Bass charitably and give him the benefit of the doubt, so I commented on his post. If I find out I’ve misinterpreted, I’ll update this post.

I want to look closer at Mr. Bass’ assertion that keeping Torah is a heresy.

Gentile and Jewish believers must keep the “Torah” in order to live as Jesus lived and, therefore, be righteous, even if it is said by the false teachers on this subject not to be a salvation issue, and that we are saved by our faith in the name of the Son of God, the Lord Yeshua the Messiah

There’s a lot to unpack in this long sentence.

Torah is for no one

His post uses the phrase “Gentile and Jewish believers”; this is interesting.

Here among Messianics in the US, there is a debate about whether Torah is only applicable for Jews (a position taken by e.g. Hashivenu and UMJC-types), or whether Torah is good instruction for all God’s people (e.g. Messianic Apologetics and Torah Resource.)

But few are the Messianic congregations that are Torah-negative for all people; doing so would result in a group little different than your local Evangelical church.

We Torah-positive Messianics see things differently. We see the Torah as God’s continuing standard for morality, a constitution for a holy people. As Jewish luminary Dennis Prager recently wrote,

The idea that the Torah is only for the Jews is as absurd as the idea that Shakespeare is only for the English, or that Beethoven is only for the Germans.

-Dennis Prager, The Rational Bible

What does Bass mean by “Torah”?

The heresy that…Gentile and Jewish believers must keep the “Torah”

I noticed Bass’ use of quotes around the term Torah.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but perhaps Mr. Bass is not so much against the Torah as he is Ultra Orthodox abuses of it?

He undoubtedly has seen the abuse of the Torah almost daily in Israel, where “Torah observant” people spit at, shout insults at, and kick people they don’t like.


Above: “Torah observant” religious people hurl insults, spit on, and kick a woman who helps a driver safely navigate through a Haredi protest.

I know that Mr. Bass’ congregation has been attacked by “Torah observant” Orthodox Jewish protestors. I know Nachalat Yeshua’s services have been interrupted by zealous young Jews with bullhorns, shouting and overturning furniture – all in the name of “Torah”.

So from Mr. Bass’ standpoint, “Torah” may seem like a negative. If this was the only Torah I saw, I’d probably hate Torah too. If this is the “Torah” that Mr. Bass calls heresy, then we agree.

But if by “Torah” Mr. Bass means the God-given commandments which have formed the basis of Jewish life for 3,000 years, the Torah which Yeshua said would remain as long as earth itself, the Torah which Paul upheld and preached, the Torah which the early believers in Yeshua were zealous for, if this is the Torah Mr. Bass calls heresy, then indeed what a grievous and shameful statement.

What kind of witness are we if we say to Israel, “The Messiah of Israel did away with the God of Israel’s commandments”? We make Messiah out to be the false prophet of Deuteronomy, and ourselves worshipers of a false prophet.

But we know from the Gospels Yeshua didn’t abolish the Torah, but upheld it. His disputes with religious leaders were on faulty application of the Torah, not on the Torah itself. This is why you see Yeshua rebuking religious leaders for, e.g. devoting all their resources to the Temple instead of caring for their parents. The Pharisees erred not in keeping the Torah, but in “nullifying God’s commandments by tradition.”

If Yeshua was really saying the Torah was done away with, he could’ve just said, “You Pharisees are keeping Torah. But it’s abolished now that I’m here.”

But he didn’t. Because Yeshua isn’t the false prophet of Deuteronomy 13. He’s the real prophet of Deuteronomy 18.

Torah keeping made Paul upset

Mr. Bass contends,

They [Torah teachers] are teaching another gospel, sowing confusion and division. This is heresy, which made the Apostle Paul very upset!

He cites Acts 15, in which the leaders of the nascent Yeshua movement write to non-Jewish believers saying that no greater burden than 4 commandments will be required of them.

The problem with that statement is many fold.

First, the 4 commandments specified include 2 dietary laws, which Christians don’t keep today. So if we’re serious about these being the only 4 commandments non-Jews have to keep, then why aren’t we keeping them? (Why aren’t the non-Jews at Nachalat Yeshua keeping them?)

A second problem is that this letter was addressed specifically to non-Jews: “To the Gentile brothers”. At the very most, some could claim this ruling is only for the non-Jews who were turning to God. But Mr. Bass goes beyond this and claims it is a ruling for everyone, for all time.

A third problem is that the letter was a response to a very specific question: whether non-Jews had to formally convert to Judaism through ritual circumcision. The contested matter is right there in the beginning of the chapter: “Some men coming down from Judea were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’”

But Mr. Bass wants to apply this answer to a much broader question: should anyone, anywhere, anytime keep the Torah? To apply Acts 15 answer to this broader question is to misapply the text.

A fourth problem with this answer is it omits an important part of the ruling: that Moses is preached everywhere. The actual judgment is we don’t have to make new Gentile believers formally convert to Judaism in order to be saved. Why? “Because Moses is preached in every city from ancient generations, being read in the synagogues every Shabbat.”

Omitting this information is problematic, because the disciples laid upon new Gentile believers 4 Torah basics with the understanding they will eventually hear the whole Torah.

In Galatians 5, which I assume Mr. Bass was referring to with regards to Paul’s anger, Paul is angry that believers were undergoing conversion to Judaism, thinking this was required for salvation.

Torah as façade

Mr. Bass gives an out to those people who keep Torah for appearances’ sake.

“This is not the same as someone, for the sake of the gospel, living in a manner acceptable to an ethnic population or a religious group, in order that they might be more open to listen to the gospel.”

What is being said here is it’s OK to keep Torah if it’s for the purpose of Jewish conversion. And likewise for all ethnicities.

This deeply grieves me. Jews are not just another ethnic population. As Messianic Jewish pioneer Rabbi Stuart Dauermann said, “Jews are not just another non-Christian people, and Judaism is not just another non-Christian religion.”

When we encourage or even permit people to keep the Torah “so that some might be saved”, aren’t we just playing pretend? Doesn’t that lend credibility to the anti-missionary’s charge that we’re deceivers?

Folks often point to Paul’s words in Corinthians:

“To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law…I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

Does this include lying and a façade of who we truly are? God forbid! Lying and cheating your way to conversions is not what Paul had in mind! A more accurate interpretation is that Paul spoke with people on their level. It doesn’t mean he was a deceiver for Christ.

How will Israel be provoked to jealousy if we’re a bunch of fakers? Our Torah observance should neither be fake nor an emulation of Orthodox Judaism. Our Torah should be an emulation of Messiah’s own Torah observance. He’s our model. And our walk must be in sincerity, not as a façade meant to bring in more conversions.

What grieves me most about this section of Mr. Bass’ statements is that the only form of Torah observance that is acceptable is the kind exists solely for the purpose of conversion. What of obedience to God? What of faithfulness the covenant that God has used to preserved Jews for 3500 years?

Torah keeping and One New Man

Bass says that the One New Man in Messiah, comprised of Jews and Gentiles, is hindered by Torah:

“Torah-keeping” does not promote the one new man in Messiah; and the Law of Messiah by His cross is the ‘one Law’ that all believers as a new creation live under

That is yet to be seen. We’ve had nearly 1800 years of trying the other way: a Torah-free Christianity. It has produced unity – at the expense of erasure of Jewish identity. Even the Messianic Jewish luminaries of the 19th and 20th centuries, like Paul Philip Levertov, have ultimately lost their Jewish identity, their children now identify as Roman Catholics or otherwise absorbed into the gentile sea of the Church.

I do not believe it is God’s will for Jews to disappear. And the Church as it stands ultimately causes Jews to assimilate and lose their Jewish identity. If not them, then their children, and almost certainly their grandchildren.

Isn’t it time for something else? A pro-Torah Messiah faith reverses this, and upholds Jews as God’s special chosen people, with a unique calling. Some claim it makes gentiles into Jews, but in reality, in my experience, it makes gentiles into pro-Jewish, pro-Israel, pro-Torah Bible believers. I’ll take that over Jewish assimilation.

A plain reading of the Bible upholds Torah

Mr. Bass says a heresy is “a teaching that does not line up with the plain teaching of the Word of God.”

The amazing thing to me is that Torah keeping is a plain teaching of the Bible. The whole of the Tenakh is basically a cycle of:

  1. God giving a commandment
  2. People breaking the command and rebelling
  3. God sending judgment and exile
  4. People repenting to God for disobedience
  5. God divinely reversing the exile

Nearly every book of the Old Testament plays into this cycle. The Torah gives the commandments. The book of Joshua shows God’s people carrying out the commandments as they enter Israel. Kings and Chronicles covers the obedience (mostly disobedience) of early Israel, and God’s judgments on us for disobedience. Jeremiah, Isaiah, Joel and more call Israel to repentance. Nehemiah and Ezra are about the people returning in repentance and God undoing the exile.

Nearly every book of the Tenakh has to do with keeping God’s commandments defined in the Torah.

Clearly, keeping God’s commandments is a plain meaning of the Bible!

But it’s not just the Tenakh. The first few chapters in the Gospels show John calling people to repent, Matthew 3. Then, the next chapter, Yeshua telling people the same.

What were they repenting from? The same thing Israel has always repented from: breaking God’s commandments; sin.

Yeshua says plainly the Torah should be kept and taught until earth passes away. Only a non-plain, Scriptural acrobatics reading of the text says otherwise.

Paul proves he’s Torah observant in Acts 21. In his letters, Paul tells gentile congregations that God is writing Torah on our hearts, and that Torah is “good, holy, and pure.”

Even for the 2 congregations I visited in Israel, they at least read the Torah. How are we supposed to read the Torah but not live it? Doesn’t it take Scriptural acrobatics to say, “Well, this is the plain meaning of the text – to keep the commandment – but here’s a complicated reason why you you can disregard the plain meaning”?

An open plea to Pastor Howard Bass

Mr. Bass, as a brother in Messiah, I ask you to reconsider your view that Torah keepers are heretics. If Torah keepers are heretics, then Yeshua and the early church were heretics.

You said, "A heretical teaching does not line up with the plain teaching of the Word of God." Consider that keeping God's commandments in the Torah aligns with the plain meaning of the Word of God, both in our Tenakh and in the Gospels:

"Whoever keeps and teaches the Torah and the prophets will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven."
-Yeshua, Matthew 5

And again in Acts:

"You see, brother, how many myriads there are among the Jewish people who have believed—and they are all zealous for the Torah. They have been told that you teach all the Jewish people among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their
children or to walk according to the customs. What’s to be done then? We have four men who have a vow on themselves. Take them, and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. That way, all will realize there is nothing to the things they have been told about you, but that you yourself walk in an orderly
manner, keeping the Torah.


-The early church speaking to Paul, Acts 21

I understand that seeing Orthodox abuse of Torah observance can create a negative perception of the Torah. And seeing persecution from Yad L'Achim and supposedly Torah-observant groups may cause a person to think the Torah is not of God, or not for today.

But the issue with those groups isn't that they keep Torah. It's that they keep Torah apart from Yeshua, resulting in a perversion. Their hard heart towards Yeshua is temporary, and their Torah practice will one day align with the King's Torah. We cannot taint our view of Torah by those who abuse it.

Please reconsider.

10 Things I Wrote in 2018

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Shalom Kineti readers.

As we enter 2019, I thought I’d reflect back on the articles I’d written in the last year, ones I’m particularly proud of. Here are the top 10 articles I’ve written dealing with faith, science, and apologetics.

  1. Would the Torah Look Different if God Revealed it Today?
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    The Torah is filled with commandments tailored to a civilization circa 1500 BC. So, if God gave the Torah fresh today, would it look different? I argue it would.

    This axiom opens up more questions about how we moderns should apply the ancient text of the Bible. Keep an eye out for a new post exploring these ideas.
     
  2. The Universe Had a Beginning. Here’s How We Know and Why It Matters
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    Did you know that modern cosmology affirms the universe came into existence? The universe didn’t exist forever; there was a time and place where the universe exploded into existence.

    A universe that sprung into existence means something very powerful caused it to happen. Or, in the words of one secular science journal, “If the universe was created, doesn’t that mean there’s a Creator?”
     
  3. What Science, Technology, and Medicine Can’t Solve
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    For all the good that science, tech, and medicine have done, they can’t solve – and indeed, don’t attempt to solve – the world’s greatest problem: the human propensity for evil.

    Billy Graham’s death inspired this post, where I recall and examine a fantastic TED Talk he delivered to a secular, technologically-savvy audience. It’s stirring and powerful and utterly relevant for today.
     
  4. Evidence for God: Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, Explained
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    Did you know there are ancient logical proofs of God’s existence? Did you know some of them are over 2500 years old?

    In this post I examine and explain in my own words Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, an ancient logical proof for God’s existence.
     
  5. Religious Hypocrites Shaming God’s Reputation
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    Newly released court documents show the absolute depravity of the child abuse carried out by Catholic priests, and covered up by Church hierarchy. My secular friends begin asking, “Why are churches even legal?”

    I argue our own hypocrisy is the greatest threat to our faith, and how we need to refocus our efforts towards the good works Messiah commanded us to carry out. Doing so will result in the reemergence of God’s people as a light to the world.
     
  6. The Pro-Torah, Pro-Israel, Pro-Jewish Apostle Paul
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    I’ve been studying Romans and teaching it at my local Messianic congregation. I’m more than ever convinced of Paul’s Messianic identity: his favorable view of the Torah, his advocacy for his own nation Israel, and his heart and devotion for his own people, the Jewish people.
     
  7. Paul’s Identity as a Messianic Jew: A Necessity for a More Accurate Interpretation of His Letters
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    The more I study Romans, the more I realize that a faulty view of Paul – for example, that he’s an ex-Jew who converted to a new gentile religion – results in a poor interpretation of his letters. That poor interpretation leads to anemic disciples, or worse, Christian anti-Semitism.
     
  8. 11 Elements of Liberal Christianity: A Conservative’s Friendly Critique
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    What do liberal Christians and progressive religionists hold as core truths? Where can we conservatives find common ground, and where do we differ? I examine and offer a friendly critique of a new book on liberal Christianity.
     
  9. Human Ageing in View of the Divine
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    Medicine is solving and curing more diseases as each year passes. Human lifespan has doubled since the 1700s. If this trend continues, humans may live indefinitely. If science-based medicine could provide eternal life, would it affect our faith? Both Jews and Christians hold resurrection to be of paramount importance.
     
  10. Abortion: Examining the Torah’s Commandment Regarding the Unborn

    Several Jewish public figures entered a dispute about whether Judaism is intrinsically pro-life. I examine their arguments and look at the Torah to see what we can glean.

There you have it, friends. 10 things I wrote that I’m most proud of.

What’s in store for 2019? One of my resolutions this year is to write once a week, with a plan of action to write each Monday. This is the first such Monday  post. Smile

Another plan of action  is to send out regular updates to the Kineti email list. I’ll likely revert that list to automated monthly email, otherwise it tends to be put on the backburner of busy life. I prefer personalized email, but without automation, I’m only able to send out a few emails per year.

So, more posts, and more in your inbox. Thanks for reading, fine Kineti readers.