Torah for Its Own Sake
One of the enduring legacies supersessionism has imparted to Christianity in general, and evangelical Christianity in particular, is a complicated relationship with the legal material of the Hebrew Bible. There is a common belief that since Christians follow the New Covenant, these laws are deemed null or fulfilled by Christ, and therefore do not require attention, or at least not the same level one would grant other biblical texts. The issue with this belief is that the legal material is part of the Christian canon, and therefore—doctrinally speaking—deserves serious attention. In seeking a robust and enduring reason to engage the legal material, I propose that evangelicals adopt a rabbinic concept that interrogates and develops one’s disposition toward Torah. This rabbinic concept is תורה לשמה (Torah lishmah), or “Torah for its own sake.” In this rabbinic understanding, when one studies Torah, one should study it lishmah, “for its own sake”—and no other. I argue that Torah lishmah for a Christian can mean to study Torah—especially the legal material—not simply because it might be personally or communally beneficial, but because it is divine teaching, because it is given to be studied and known intimately in all its detail, in both its theological and embodied aspects, because studying it is an act of lovingkindness toward God, a giving of oneself out of love and loyalty. How do evangelicals learn how to adopt Torah lishmah? I suggest that we have the rabbis to guide us: a vast array of texts from late antiquity onward, documenting the attempts of numerous rabbis to engage Torah lishmah. I propose that we read these texts alongside our own biblical commentaries, so that we might learn what Torah lishmah is and how it might positively affect our approach to the legal material. To begin this process and to help illustrate my proposal, I start at Mount Sinai and the giving of the Ten Words—that is, the Decalogue, as it appears in Exod 20:2-17. The rabbinic midrashic commentary I use to engage the Decalogue is known as the Mekhilta d’Rabbi Ishmael, a tannaitic halakhic commentary on the Book of Exodus. To help contextualize and ground my explication, I compare the Mekhilta’s interpretations with those of Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE), one of the most influential theologians and exegetes among the Church Fathers, and certainly one of the most important progenitors of evangelical Christianity. Together, the Mekhilta and Augustine’s interpretations are then brought into conversation with contemporary evangelical commentaries on the Decalogue. I compare especially each genre’s presuppositions, contexts, interests, insights, and methods. Through these comparisons, I underscore key insights Christians might learn from the rabbinic interpretations. Most importantly, through these comparisons, I determine the meaning and significance of Torah lishmah for an evangelical.