Ask the Rabbi: Is Jewish Law Based on the Bible?

Ask the RabbiVM asked: “Does the Rabbinical Courts based their decisions predominantly from the Torah/Tanach? Especially when it comes to Sin & Judgment?!”

This isn’t a simple question, although it might seem like one.  It’s especially pertinent at this season of the year, as we begin a six-week period of self-examination and teshuvah [repentance.]

The Nature of Scripture

Let’s look at the nature of scripture for a moment. Any sacred scripture, be it Tanakh, or the New Testament, or the Koran, is a body of work that is interpreted by the people who use it. An outsider reading it may have any number of impressions about it, but she is unlikely to automatically stumble upon its meaning as understood by insiders. Try this experiment:

Go to the Internet Sacred Text Archive. Choose a text completely unfamiliar to you. If you are not Hindu, you might choose the Rig-Veda. Read the First Hymn, Agni and see what you make of it.

My point is that scripture doesn’t make sense without interpretation, precisely because it is scripture. It is sacred text and that means that is not like the newspaper. For an insider to Hinduism, Agni is meaningful. It rests within a body of understanding and a body of interpretation that render it meaningful. Outside of those contexts, not so much.

Torah

The same is true for Torah. In fact, this is easier to see with Torah and Tanakh [the Jewish Bible, including Torah, Prophets, and Writings] because in fact many different faiths use them as scripture and read them quite differently. Rabbinic Judaism has its ways of looking at them. Roman Catholicism has its ways of looking at them. The Southern Baptist Convention has its ways of looking at them, and so on. Islam recognizes it as a significant text and also looks at Tanakh in its own ways. I’ve written about this in regard to the prophets in “Blood Moons” and the Meaning of Prophecy.

Yet the words are all the same, with a few small variations, depending on whether you’re working from the Masoretic Text, the Septuagint, the Vulgate, the King James Bible… you see, it gets complicated quickly when we include translations. Christians tend to work with their scriptures via translation, which is why I included the Vulgate and KJV. Scholars might work primarily on Torah texts in Hebrew, but they’ll also consider the Leningrad Codex and other similar sources.

Rabbinic Judaism works primarily from the Masoretic Text. We’re aware of and refer to the Septuagint and the Targum Onkelos (1st c. Aramaic translation), etc, but we learn and work in the Hebrew handed down to us by the Masoretes.

Interpretation of Commandments

But then we get into the matter of interpretation. For instance:

 :זָכוֹר אֶת-יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת, לְקַדְּשׁוֹ

Remember the Day of the Sabbath, to keep it holy. (Exodus 20:7)

The verse offers us a verb in command form, “remember” – OK, it’s a commandment, a mitzvah. It even offers us a goal, “to keep it holy.”

But what behavior is actually commanded here? How shall we “remember” and how do we know if our remembering is working to “keep it holy?” And that is where Rabbinic Judaism goes many different places at once. The Talmud records discussions on this and the myriad of other discussions about mitzvot, as do other bodies of work we call “Oral Torah.” Those discussions continue today in the form of responsa literature and informal discussions, not only among rabbis but in every Jewish household. There are orthodox interpretations of what it means to keep Shabbat, and there are many other legitimate Jewish interpretations of it. The phrase “Jewish Law,” in English refers to halakhah, a traditional orthodox set of choices about interpretation with roots in the medieval codes. Most Jews in the United States today are not halakhic in their approach to lived Judaism: they see those codes as important sources of tradition but not binding upon them.

Picking and Choosing?

Some will see this as “picking and choosing,” and in fact that is exactly what it is. I am choosing to read the text in a certain way. We always do that with sacred texts: we make choices as we read them. We live in a conversation with the text, whether we choose to abide by the choices of a particular group with whom we have affiliated, or whether we make our own individual choices as well.

Final point in answering your question: I’m a little curious as to whom you refer when you say “Rabbinical Courts.” As I pointed out in Is There a Jewish Vatican? there is no central office in Judaism. There are batei din, rabbinical courts, but they generally form for an occasion like a conversion – there isn’t much call for them in most of the Diaspora, where we are bound to follow the law of the land unless it creates a big oy vey situation calling for civil disobedience, etc. In Israel, there are rabbinical courts that run by orthodox, these days mostly haredi, understandings of the texts. Those are text-based, but filtered through the traditional understandings of Talmud and codes, with a considerable mis-use of those texts, if you ask me. (As the saying goes, “two Jews, three opinions.”)

Short Answer, at last

So my answer to you is: Yes, in that everything goes back to Torah. And No, in that everything is also considered within the web of understanding and interpretation of the texts.

And here’s another question for you: Why do you ask?

One Response to Ask the Rabbi: Is Jewish Law Based on the Bible?

  1. VM says:

    Dear Rabbi,

    I love reading your response.

    As a follow-up to my initial question, … when life deals a devastating blow to one’s Jewish belief,

    • although they may be a Non-Practicing Jew
    o but when (one) observes the spoiled fruit within various aspects of their life,
     ..playing out, in reality, within their own family
     ..(test, trials, & tribulations),
    o sometimes, .. even the strongest .. of Jew may
    o .. momentarily .. question the validity of the scriptures
     purely based on what Senior Leaders may have taught them therefore, the Jew may not be seeing those … fruits manifested in their life.

    If decades of … “self-righteousness” was taught to innocent & well-meaning Jews,
    o .. as the groundwork & foundational basis
     .. of one’s whole, entire life,
    o .. plus, they have supported the ministry
     … through donations offerings, time, talents, & their treasure …

    • … why would God allow
    o that type of indoctrination .. to happen to sincere Jews,
     when the whole idea of going to a congregation
     .. was to faithfully learn from Senior Leaders
     .. the commandments and follow G-d?

    That’s why there are soooo many Non-Practicing Jews wandering in the 21st Century wilderness
    • due to false or twisted teachings.
    • For years, they believed the .. twisted lies
    o ..that ministers have taught ..from the bible/scriptures

    Possibly, the reason why there are soooo many Non-Practicing Jews,
    • …could it be that they are “yearning” for something far more “deeper”
    • …than the Law of Moses
    o …although .. it was established to set up the Jewish culture,
    o …customs, & traditions, morals, civil laws of the land, kosher, & priestly duties, ceremonial laws

    Also, the Non-Practicing Jews may .. desire … to have an experience like (Father) Abraham had with G-d
    • ..a personal and special intimate relationship with Hashem .. communing, etc…
    o ..Genesis 18 .. esp verses :1-2, :18-21, 23 -33
    o ..Genesis 14:18-20 .. as with Malki-Tzedek, king of Salem & priest of God Most High

    According to …
    • ..Priest / Congregation … Lev 4:1-33, Lev 5:5-19, Chp 16:21,
    • Num 15:24-31
    • ..Aaron / 2 Priest … Lev 10:16-20
    • ..King David / Burnt Offering .. 2 Samuel 24
    • ..Hezekiah .. 2 Chronicles 32:24-25
    • ..Sins of Forefathers .. Lev 26:39-40, Numbers 18:1, Ezra 9:7
    • ..After G-ds own heart .. Jeremiah 3:15
    • ..God may relent .. Joshua 24:19

    Whatever the reason why there are so many Non-Practicing Jews
    … something’s missing.

    Like

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