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

August 25, 2014

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?


Jury Duty

January 23, 2014

juryduty1

Today I was scheduled for jury duty. I kept the day clear, called last night to see if they wanted me at 9 a.m., and then phoned again at 11 a.m. to see if they wanted me at 1 p.m.  They didn’t want me. I’m done for the next year.

This year jury duty was no big deal. Some years I go in for one cattle call, and then they release me. A couple of years ago, I went in for my cattle call, and then back again and again as the jury was selected, until I was Juror #8. That year it was a two week job.

That time, I got to see the whole process, including the process of people trying to get released from duty. The judge was tough but fair: single proprietors of small businesses and single caretakers of small children went home almost immediately, serving almost no time. People with long-planned nonrefundable vacations were released, too. A couple of folks who did not have the ability to follow the arguments were gently sent home. People who merely couldn’t be bothered were held to serve, at least one of them on the jury itself. He quit whining about it about the third day, as I recall.

We worked hard. Even the whiny guy who didn’t want to be there worked hard, by the time we got to deliberations. During the days of testimony and waiting, we worked hard at following the rules: no chatting about it, no opinions, just take it all in. We understood that years of a man’s life depended on our behavior and decisions. We saw that witnesses had been unwilling, and we saw the damage to the victim. We heard conflicting testimony. We knew, too, that there were many things we were not allowed to see or hear, and we had to accept that. We knew that the crime in question was too common for the newspapers, but that it represented a small piece of a big problem in our community. We intuited other crimes that the defendant may have committed, but those were not the matter at hand.

After the testifying was done, I served as foreperson of the jury as we processed information and slowly re-covered what we had seen and heard. I took vote after vote, stopping to discuss and process some more after each vote, getting us closer to a verdict. As I said, we all worked hard.

At the end of it, we convicted a man of a felony. At the end of it, I felt that I’d done my very best, that we’d done our very best, and I hope justice was done. At the end of it, I had learned that nothing on television even approximates reality, especially reality shows.

I would just as soon not serve on a jury again. The thing is, every defendant is some mother’s child, a human being who needs a fair trial whatever he or she deserves at the end of that trial. It is an imperfect system, but as the judge said to us at the end of it, it’s better than any other system human beings have devised.

As a Jew, I’m proud of the many contributions of Jewish civilization to the processes of law. As a rabbi, I am conscious of the requirement of Jewish law and tradition that I obey the law and serve: dina d’malchuta dina, “the law of the land is the law.” I did jury duty today serving my responsibilities as an American and as a Jew.

Now: back to life!


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