There are many well meaning Messianic teachers who say that believers should be following the “halakah” (the way to walk before the Lord) of the Rabbis based on a very unusual interpretation of Matt 23.1-2. As a result, many believers put themselves under the authority of these Rabbis. But, is that what a believer should be doing? Let’s look at this verse again to see what it means.
One thing to unserstand about Matthew 23 is Yeshua is not coming against all Pharisees here. He is coming against Beit Shammai, who hated Yeshua. Yeshua speaks of the “scribes and the Pharisees” and he is talking about those from Beit Shammai because those were the ones who constantly attacked Yeshua. The Pharisees as a whole came “nearer” to the truth than the Sadducees and the priests. The Pharisees gave the literal and the traditional sense of the Scriptures and the others didn’t. A majority of the people followed their teachings so he addresses them in particular. In this case, Yeshua is going to be talking about those scribes and Pharisees from Beit Shammai, who help plot the death of Yeshua and who contended with all the time. When you see Yeshua in conflict with a Pharisee, usually he was from Beit Shammai.
When it says “they have seated themselves in the seat of Moses” it means the school of Shammai interpreted Scripture as teachers and sat in the Great Sanhedrin, which they dominated. The traditional posture when teaching was sitting (Luke 4.16-20, based on Exo 18.13). They read and explained the Torah to the people but this is not saying they had “legislative” powers. Shammai usurped authority in the Sanhedrin since 20 BC and “seated himself.”
Where it says in v 2 “Therefore, all that they tell you do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds, for they say things, and do not do them” does not mean that a believer has to follow all their teachings and oral traditions. It simply means that when they give an interpretation be alert and obey them if it doesn’t violate the Torah. One ancient manuscript has “all that he (Moses) tells you do and observe, but so not do according to their (Beit Shammai) deeds.” The mistake that people make with this verse is they think Yeshua is saying that the Rabbis should be followed.
At the time this was written, there was a functioning Temple, priesthood and law system and so they were to follow the leaders as they followed the Lord, as long as what they said didn’t contradict Scripture. The prophets took issue with leaders all through the Tanak. We know that Yeshua and the Talmidim (the disciples) didn’t follow some of the halakah of certain sects in the “judaisms” of the time and later the Talmidim were rather vocal about not following some of the halakah, like the 18 Edicts from the School of Shammai (Acts15) for instance.
The leaders of the time based their authority on Deut 17.8-13 and these verses dealt with the courts, but they did not apply to making interpretations. After the Temple was destroyed, the Sadducees and the priests lost their platform and the Pharisees from Beit Hillel took over much of the religious teaching duties to lead the people. They put together most of the religious books, like the Mishnah, Gemara, Tosefta and other books. They cited Deut 17.8-13 as their authority to make rulings that bound the Jewish people to follow their teachings. But, there is a problem with this view.
First, Deut 17.8-13 is talking about court rulings, not biblical interpretations. Second, when Deut 17.8-13 was written they had a High Priest who could consult the Lord with the Urim and Thummim in difficult cases. They could get a direct answer and clarification from the Lord. Third, there were Prophets who could direct the King and the leaders as to what to do, also hearing from the Lord. Fourth, where it says to consult the judges (Deut 17.9), these were appointed by the people (Deut 16.18).
That’s why if a person didn’t listen to what the High Priest, prophet or judge said they could be cut off from among the people. These verses do not apply today to the Rabbis after the destruction of the Temple. Who says the Rabbis of today are to be judges over anybody. Yeshua had some serious things to say about the scribes and the Pharisees of his day and he certainly didn’t obey all of the oral traditions of the Rabbis.
The Sanhedrin was dominated at thectime by members of Beit Shammai and they were seen as an enemy of the Faith (Matt 5.22; 10.17; 26.59; Mark 13.9; 15.1; Luke 22.66; John 11.47; Acts 4.15; 5.21; 5.41; 6.12-15; 22.30; 23.1,6,15,20,28; 24.20). Yeshua said their teachings were plants that were going to be uprooted ( Matt 15.13-14) and were planted by the enemy (Matt 13.37-39). He said their teachings affect the outer man, leaving the inner man untouched (Matt 23.25-28). Their teachings were leaven and left untouched would leaven the whole (Matt 16.6-12).
So, to follow the teachings of the Rabbis today and to use Matt 23.1-2 to justify it is not a good idea. It is a misinterpretation of what Yeshua was really saying. He was saying that the teachers of his day sit and teach the Scriptures and if they teach something that is not in line with the Scriptures, then we are under no obligation to obey it. This principle applies to any teacher, not just the Rabbis. In Matt 23, Yeshua is coming against Beit Shammai and we have numerous teachings on this.
To twist this verse around to say that the Rabbis are the spiritual leaders and teachers of a believer in Yeshua is wrong. We are not to be under the authority of any unbeliever. This ministry knows of many well meaning believers who have done this and it leads to trouble. These teachers will get them to doubt the Gospels and Epistles and then they begin doubting what it teaches specifically. Eventually, they begin to doubt that Yeshua is the Messiah. We know of many people who no longer believe in Yeshua as God and Messiah and have converted to Judaism.
On the other hand, it doesn’t mean that you can’t study the writings and teachings of the Rabbis. These go back thousands of years there is a wealth of information available to help in our understanding. But, the words of Yeshua in these verses are not saying that believers are to follow the Rabbis and their teachings or to put themselves under their authority today.