Wednesday, 29 October 2014

I Follow the Torah, Not The Laws of Men

I grew up in a traditional Jewish culture which made no distinction between rules found in the written and "oral" Torahs (torah sh'bichtav and torah sh' ba'al peh). Only when as an adult I became seriously interested in Judaism as a spiritual path did I begin to learn about these two types of mitzvot, or "commandments". The argument for the authority of the "oral" Torah rests in a simple truth. The written rules and examples of case law in the Torah, by which I here mean the Chumash or "five Books of Moses", are not sufficient to govern personal conduct, legal culture, or political structure without further elaboration. The Torah gives us precepts, principles and "case law", ie. examples of how to judge in a selection of cases. Torah law explicitly covers a tiny percentage of what an actual society needs rules for, however. There must, therefore, have been oral traditions to fill out the picture of Gods intent (for more on Torah law as "case law" see Joshua Berman's Created Equal). 

A little reflection will show that this must be true. The Chumash simply does not contain sufficient legal rulings to govern an entire society. The idea of an "oral law" is also very useful since an unwritten law can be modified over time, providing flexibility and innovation. All historians of Judaism agree that this has in fact happened, even in the long period after the oral law was written down in the form of the Mishnah and Talmud. 

The problem develops as follows. The law contained in the Mishna is more elaborate than Torah law and sometimes reinterprets or modifies literal Torah law. The Talmud goes further. There are two principles at work here: one is teasing out as much detail as possible from creative exegesis of the text. The other is creating "fences". A "fence" is a law which protects a Torah law by forming another law "around it" which is actually more stringent than the original law but keeps a person totally away from any possibility of violating the original law. An example of this process is the laws around mixing meat and milk. 

Butter Chicken

The Torah forbids cooking a kid in its mother's milk (Exodus/Shemot 23:19; 34:26; Deuteronomy/Dvarim 14:21). The Rabbis extended the law to mean eating any animal in its mother's milk (lamb and beef were thus included). They argued that this was the true intention of the law. They also argued that it was not only the case of cooking but also of eating: milk and meat should not be eaten together. They also felt that the wording of the text also forbids benefiting in any way from a combination of milk and meat, for example selling it to to someone. Thus far we have a concern to elaborate the law as much as possible based on that they thought were its implications (Hullin 113b, 115b, Talmud Bavli). 

Then the fences come in. Not only can milk and meat not be eaten together, but they cannot both be part of the same meal at all. Chicken and milk also cannot be. Why? Someone might think you were eating milk and meat and be tempted or misled into sin. Also no taste of meat or milk can mix with their forbidden other. Plates which have been in contact with meat thus cannot be used for milk and vice versa. One must therefore own two sets of plates. In the modern world there must be milk restaurants and meat restaurants.

And on and on we go. A tremendous amount of material, psychological and intellectual energy goes into maintaining the resultant system. But what was the original rule? Don't cook a goat in its mother's milk. 

This is why I eat butter chicken with no twinge of guilt (as do Karaites, Falasha and some other ancient Jewish communities. Just saying). 

The issue becomes even more piqued when we ask what the purpose of the rule could have been. Some suggest it was meant to engender sensitivity to the dignity of animals. Eating a creature cooked in its mother's milk? My people, Israel, don't do that, says Hashem.

Some people say that it was a pagan delicacy, a feature of Cannanite cuisine that was part and parcel of the rapacious and morally insensitive culture of the people whom the land of Israel "vomited out". Maybe both answers are true. If so the take home lesson would be to avoid barbaric culinary practices which disrespect the dignity of animals, not to develop soy based coffee cream so we can can have whitened coffee after our steak dinner. 

The oral law has generally moved in the direction of stringency, but it does cut both ways. For instance, the Torah mandates that every seven years all debts should be cancelled. It also mandates that the community should not allow anyone to be lost in poverty- in other words, the giving of loans will be necessary. In Mishnaic times the Rabbis found that no one was giving loans as the seventh year got closer, knowing that the debts might be forgiven before they would be paid back. Rabbi Hillel, a great Rabbi, instituted the famous prozbul, a legal device where debts would be held by the Rabbinic court itself and thus repayment could still be demanded after the seventh year. R' Hillel's intention was to protect the poor from finding no lenders. Yet there is no denying that in doing so he contradicted a divine law. One could also argue that he aided a process of moral and structural unravelling of Jewish society away from the idealistic society envisioned in the Torah.  

In the New Testament Jesus, that arch-enemy of Rabbinic Judaism (on their side, not his) criticized the burgeoning Talmudic movement in Jewish society on both fronts, both for moral laxity and loopholes and for legalistic stringencies. So this is an old pattern, and one that is endemic to the way that the Oral Law has developed.

What is the solution? I would argue that the solution lies in a kind of "protestant Jewish reformation". Like the best of the Christian reformation this movement should not throw out the wisdom or insights of Rabbinic Judaism. But they should hold to a sola scriptura emphasis which holds honest, scientifically infomed scriptural exegesis as its dominant principle. We live in a time where this is possible like never before. 

I am not arguing against "oral" law (although at this point it might be better to call it "traditional" or "extra-biblical" since it is bound to be predominantly textual in nature). What I am arguing against is the lack of radical ongoing "reformation" (in the protestant sense) in traditional Jewish law. Some of the methods and ideologies with which the Rabbis interpreted the Torah law do not stand up to analysis, yet they are held to be sacred and authoritative, even "God's will" in a way which is ironically quite reminiscent, if anything, of the Catholic Church and the magisterium. 

In the Jewish community the solutions thus far are: 1) the "Catholic" option, represented by Orthodox Judaism. Here the decisions of previous generations and of contemporary Rabbinic courts are considered to have authority which supersedes the written Torah and is divinely guided; 2) the "Anglican" option, represented by Conservative Judaism. Here great respect is given to legal precedent , but theoretically all is open to scrutiny. In practice the degree of "reformation" allowed is quite conservative (more conservative than the Anglicans in fact), meaning that the core precedents and praxis of the oral law are not radically reexamined; 3) the Protestant option allowing for total freedom in interpreting law to the point that the idea of "law" itself is almost absent. This covers the Reformed, Renewal, and Reconstructionist movements. This doesn't mirror historical Protestant movements so much as the most liberal and inchoate forms of Protestantism. 

Something is Missing

Something is missing from this picture. It is a robust, theologically Orthodox, devout and earnest Judaism rooted in an intellectually honest and academically informed engagement with the Torah and Jewish tradition. In the absence of such a communal pursuit those of us who believe that the Torah is divinely revealed and want to know and follow the God if Israel must live a quasi-karaitic existence, which is what I do. 

Now as a messianic Jew I do not believe that my standing before God is dependent on my obedience to the Torah's commandments, or my own righteousness. I am "set free from the law" yet that freedom is toward embodying the Torah, not disregarding it. As a result of this I am both passionately interested in understanding and applying the Torah and free to do so in a non-legalistic manner governed by my conscience as it is illumined by my ongoing growth in submission to the Holy Spirit. 

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheynu Melech Ha-Olam Asher Natan Lanu Derech Hayeshua baMashiach Yeshua, baruch Hu.  

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