Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Jewish Laws: The Categories

I enjoy thinking about the origins of Judaism, how it has evolved and the current mentality of the religion. It is amazing to see how much Judaism has been effected by other cultures and how Judaism has shaped those cultures around it. However, when one does this type of research it opens the door for many questions. Namely, how is the current state of our religion, orthodox Judaism, the heir to the original form of Judaism. How can we claim that this is the proper path for us to be following? Many people claim that the Pharisees perverted the religion and others say the more modern Rabbis have completely distorted the way of worshiping G-D. So, why should we believe that "halachic" Judaism is the proper way? Are these laws really from G-D?

One must realize that many of the laws that we follow, like a man wearing a head covering, is completely made up by the Rabbis without any source in the Torah. It is a custom that was accepted by the Jewish people, but was not a command from G-D. Why then do we follow these types of laws without fail?

There are also laws that are stated explicitly in the Torah, like no kindling a fire on Shabbos. These are clear commands directly from G-D that require no interpretation. It is obvious why these commands must be followed, they are from G-D!

A third category of laws are those that are derived from the Torah by the Rabbis. Meaning, they were directly from G-D, but they were oral traditions that G-D told to the Jewish people. A good example of this are the prohibitions on shabbos, namely the majority of the thirty nine melachos (39 Jobs that were done in the temple or mishkan). The Torah says that one can not do melacha, work, on shabbos, but never defines what work it is talking about. The Rabbis tell us that through the oral tradition G-D made known to us what melacha He was speaking of.

These are the three types of halachas that we have: directly from G-D that can be understood straight from the Torah; from G-D that was transmitted orally and the Rabbis tell us the oral tradition; and laws that are completely made up by the Rabbis without any input from G-D.

Everyone who believes the Torah was given by G-D should agree that anything commanded straight in the Torah should be followed because it is the direct words of G-D. Anyone who does not can not reasonably claim that they, either, follow judaism or believe that G-D gave the Torah. That means that on shabbos, anyone who believes G-D gave the Torah and they want to follow Judaism can not light a fire. There is no differentiating betweek any type of actual fire, because G-D says do not kindle a fire. Anyone kindling a fire is not following Judaism, doesn't believe G-D gave the Torah or they realize they are sinning.

The next two categories deal with the Rabbis interpretations and their own laws. These two ideas are less clear cut with regard to what the halacha is in actuality. Whose interpretation do we follow as being the words of G-D? There are many arguments within the Gemorah itself and even after that there are many doubts. Wy should the Jewish people follow anyones interpretation? How are we to know that it is authentic? Also, if it is not authentic, then are we actually going against G-D's will?

To explain this, one needs to look at the verse in parshas Shoftim (Devarim 17:11) that says "According to the law which they shall teach thee, and according to the judgment which they shall tell thee, thou shalt do; thou shalt not turn aside from the sentence which they shall declare unto thee, to the right hand, nor to the left."

This verse tells us that G-D expects us to listen to our leaders. However, how far does this go? Does it give them a right to interpret the Torah only? Does it give them the right to add on safeguards to the Torah's law? Does it give them the power to make any law they decide without any real foundation in the Torah? What are the parameters of this law?

Hopefully, since this post is getting a little long, I will discuss the different ideas of how far the Rabbis can go and how far they have gone in the past with regard to their authority at a later post.


Recreational Musings said...

I'm glad I found your blog...I don't post most of what I write because I want to "perfect" my writing stylistically and solidify my ideas first (which may never happen), but I've written about the reach of rabbinical law in our daily lives.

I also question how me can claim to be following the "proper path." Is it possible that the Oral Tradition remained unchanged for almost 2,000 years before being recorded? Wouldn't variations exist based on hashkafa, the surrounding culture, and the location of different Jewish communities, like they have since its recording? And if a rabbinical decree has a reason for it and that reason no longer applies, why must we still follow it?

There are many questions, but since it is the best (and only) religious documentation we have of ancient Judaism, where can we draw the line between observance and absurdity?

I don't really think there is one clear answer to that, but I also don't think anyone can honestly say that the Oral Torah is 100% intact. But, these questions lead to a lot of different philosophies in play within Judaism today.

E-Man said...

Thanks, and let me just say this, blogging is not about reaching perfection it is more about sharing ideas so you can affect others and others can affect you.

Jewish history is fascinating and increadibly complex. People that just take midrashim and the gemorah at face value are missing out on our history. Anyone who thinks Dovid hamelech wore a black hat is probably not thinking. It is important to understand the evolution of halacha and why it exists the way it does today and how it changed.