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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.


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.


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.

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