Mishpatim — Laws

January 24, 2014 § 6 Comments

Once when I was a rabbinical student living in Jerusalem, I went to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher with a group of friends; while we were there I ended up talking to a group of Christians who were also touring the site. When one of them learned that we were Reform Jews, he asked: if you do not observe all the laws of Judaism, then why are you not Christian?

To his way of thinking, Judaism is a religion of law, whereas Christianity transcends it. So if we do not observe the law, we must be Christian, right? Except, of course, that we are not.

Let me explain what is wrong with his syllogism.

First, let me point out that there is a basic disagreement between Judaism and Christianity regarding the nature of law. This disagreement has theological origins, and it creates a different understanding of our mutual obligations as a community.

Specifically: is the rule of law a burden, something restricts our freedom? Or is it the very structure that allows us to live freely without conflict?

In Paulist thought, living according to the laws of the Bible is a source of anxiety because it is not possible to ever fulfill all of them. We are continually sinning by continually coming up short. To this way of thinking, in fact, the giving of the Torah was intended as a prelude, in that it ultimately leads to an entirely different approach to getting right with God. In other words, the purpose of the Torah was to teach us the depth of our sins.

For many Christians, the way to know the right thing to do is to either take the Holy Spirit into your heart and let it guide your decisions or use Jesus’ example as a guide. Charitable giving, for example, should be motivated by this sense of godliness – which is, in fact, why it is called ‘charity’ – it is related to the word for ‘heart.’ You should be moved by the spirit to give.

But we have a different view entirely. For Jews, the commandments are not a burden. The commandments are a gift. They show us the way to live.

Rather than relying on the spirit of God to motivate us to give from our hearts, we tend to be a bit more pragmatic: for example, when faced with the problem of poverty, our approach is to set up a legal structure. We seek to create a system that is capable of adequately meeting the needs of the poor while also equitably distributing the costs of the collection. That’s why we call it ‘tzedakah’ – righteous giving – for it is rooted in the very concept of ‘righteousness.’ You will give, because it is the righteous thing to do. And you will give out of legal obligation to give, because the poor do not have the luxury of waiting until you feel moved to give.

We Jews really like the rule of law. In fact, as a minority culture, we prefer to live in a society that fundamentally respects the rule of law and has a robust and fair court system.

In the Medieval period, for example, the Jews of that time were not citizens of the state in which they lived. Instead, they had a charter from the local prince or duke, which allowed a certain number of families or individuals to live within the borders of the principality or duchy.

And that number could not be exceeded. If you were born in a given principality and lived there all your life, as had your parents and your grandparents and your great-grandparents, you might still have to find another place to live when you became an adult because the number of Jews allowed in your community had been exceeded. In fact, the charter for the community itself could be revoked at whim, so the whole community might have to move as well.

Not having rights guaranteed by law creates a sense of instability and anxiety that casts a pall over the activities of a given community. No one likes to live in fear.

We Jews tend to like the rule of law because it protects the minority from the majority.

What was – and is – special about the Jewish experience in the United States, for example, is the fact that Jews have had citizenship here from the very beginning. We had no need for special dispensation in order to be here and to participate in the broader society. Whenever we find that we have been excluded or targeted, the law is on our side: we can set things right.

From our perspective, law is not a burden. The rule of law is one of the markers of civilization: it is what allows for a peaceful and stable society.

And it is in this sense that we say that the law is our proof of God’s love for us.

You don’t have to believe in Torah-from-Sinai to appreciate the value of that construction: legislation is a divine right. But, for us, instead of choosing a human King whose will is law, we have located the source of our law in the divine itself, and made the smallest, least important members of the community – the widow, the stranger, and the orphan – our most important legislative priorities. As a matter of religious obligation we must take care of the weakest and poorest among us because God wants us to.

So now let me proceed to my second point regarding my questioner’s syllogism: he wrongly assumes that Jewish law is synonymous with Biblical law.

The Jewish legal system is founded on the Biblical text, which we call the ‘written Torah’. However, we also have a parallel legal tradition – the oral Torah. The oral Torah, according to tradition, is comprised of the laws that God taught Moses orally at the same time as transmitting the written text.

This oral text was compiled Rabbi Judah the Prince around the year 200 in our secular calendar – his document is called the Mishnah. His text attracted the rabbis’ ongoing commentary, which was compiled and redacted in the sixth century. That commentary is called the Gemara. The Mishnah and the Gemara together are called the Talmud. And that text – the Talmudic text –also received ongoing commentary as well. So, when you look at a page of Talmud, what you will see is a conversation that extends from the Biblical period to the modern day.

When you speak of Jewish law in its traditional terms – from Moses to Rabbi Judah the Prince to the Talmud – it all seems rather seamless. And it is seamless, in one sense, for it is in fact an organic growing body of work. But what is not so obvious in that narrative is the rupture that occurs in the year 70 of our secular calendar.

In the year 70, the Second Temple was destroyed. Up until that point, the primary approach to worship in the Ancient Near East had been animal sacrifice: you bring an animal to the priest, who slaughters the animal in a ritual fashion, burns part of it, and then splits it between you two. The priest gets a portion as his fee, and you have the rest.

And the purpose of this sacrificial system, at least in its ancient form, was to maintain the order of the cosmos. The Temple, behind the curtain of the Holy of Holies was the point where heaven and earth meet. The priests were charged with keeping this system going, and preventing the profane elements of living from reaching the holy.  As we read in the Bible, ‘If you observe all of My commandments, then there will be rain in its season…’ These commandments helped keep the cosmos in order.

So when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, they destroyed more than a mere building – they destroyed the entire structure of Israelite worship.

Now, the rabbis asked themselves, how do we continue, now that the central cult is gone?

The ancient rabbis, convening in Yavneh, on the banks of the Kinneret (also known as the Sea of Galilee) started the process of rebuilding. God’s love for us is manifest in the commandments, right? So if we are commanded, and it is no longer possible to fulfill the commandment in its literal sense, then there must be a metaphorical way to do it. If the Temple is not standing, then we shall dress our scrolls as the High Priest. We will transform our kitchen table into the Temple altar. We will offer the words of our mouth in place of sacrificial offerings. And so on.

All of this was done in the context of the existing structure of law, faithful to its spirit yet also radically different in its execution.

Which brings me to my third point: what the man who questioned us did not understand is that the Reform movement has not transcended or repudiated the law.

We do not follow its medieval interpretations: that much is indeed true.

But we have not left that ongoing conversation. In the Reform context, we take the approach that major upheavals in Jewish life – such as the destruction of the Second Temple – call for a revision in our relationship to the law. We are responding to the upheaval caused by the Enlightenment and our Emancipation.

As I mentioned earlier, Jews in the medieval period were not citizens of the state in which they lived. They were, instead, subjects of a prince or duke who would grant them a charter to live within the principality or duchy. So, if you were born into the Jewish community, you were generally unable to leave it unless you converted or became an outlaw. Or both. There were a few – Spinoza, for example – who left the community but never joined another. His was a very lonely life.

After Jews were granted emancipation in Europe – after Jews became citizens of the state in which we lived – then participation in Jewish life became voluntary. And it became possible to make a distinction between religious and secular spheres. That’s why it’s possible, for example, for me to teach Judaism at a public university without conversionary intent. The classroom at the university is secular space. Yet when I deliver a sermon, I do so in a religious sense: the sanctuary is religious space.

What the upheavals of the past two centuries mean for us is that we need Reform. We need to be able to reconsider the received tradition in light of our new understanding of the world and of ourselves.

One area, for example, in need of revision is our understanding of the non-Jews in our midst: as equal citizens, we relate to our fellow-citizens in distinctly different ways than we did in the medieval period.

And we also have extended our appreciation of equal rights into areas of Jewish law as well: we seek to protect underrepresented and minority groups within our own culture as well, such as gays and lesbians.

For us, there is a middle ground between the poles of ‘follow the commandments in their most literal form as received in the Torah’ and ‘repudiate the laws entirely.’ To be Jewish, in our view, is to be part of an ongoing conversation and an evolving legal tradition. To be Jewish is to be commanded, yes, but it is also to be engaged in an ongoing conversation with the texts.

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