Are Jews Under the Law?

Are Jews Under the Law? March 18, 2016

By Gregory

An email from a Christian reader asking me how Passover could be a holiday about freedom, when the essence of Judaism is legalism, and since Jews, as Paul of Tarsus writes, are “under the law.”

Is Judaism legalistic? Are Jews “under the law”?

This is a fantastic question, and one that is going to take a few distinctions and definitions to even briefly answer.

Halakhah & Mitzvah

Traditional Rabbinic Judaism is not just a set of beliefs about God, humanity, and the universe. Judaism is a comprehensive way of life, filled with rules and practices that affect every aspect of life: what you do when you wake up in the morning, what you can and cannot eat, what you can and cannot wear, how to groom yourself, how to conduct business, who you can marry, how to observe the holidays and Shabbat, and perhaps most important, how to honor God, treat other people, and animals. This set of rules and practices is known as halakhah.

The word “halakhah” is usually translated as “Jewish Law,” although a more literal (and more appropriate) translation might be “the path that one walks.”

Halakhah comes from three sources: from the Torah, from laws instituted by the rabbis, usually as found in the Talmud, and from long-standing customs.

Halakhah is comprised of individual mitzvot, or commandments, that Jewish tradition has settled on as numbering 613. These rules or commandments are sometimes referred to collectively as the “Law of Moses”, “Mosaic Law”, “Sinaitic Law”, or simply “the Law”.

The 613 mitzvot contain ethical commandments, such as the prohibition against murder, ceremonial commandments concerning proper sacrifices, and commandments concerning ritual purity, such as the dietary restrictions.

Approaches to Halakhah

Halakhah is constantly interpreted by Rabbis and individuals in their local communities and in the various movements of Judaism. These ongoing interpretations are called Responsa.

Halachah is the integral decision-making process of Judaism, all branches of Judaism develop their own unique halakhah. As Rachel Adler states, “Halachah belongs to liberal Jews no less to Orthodox Jews because the stories of Judaism belong to us all. A halakhah is a communal praxis grounded in Jewish stories.”

With that said, Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews approach halakhah quite differently.

The Orthodox believe (in varying degrees and with varying interpretations) that halakhah represents an accurate, precise description of what God want us to do. Therefore, the law is binding on us. That’s it, plain and simple. God says, and we obey.

The Reform position is much more complicated. Reform Judaism asserts that every knowledgeable Jew has an equal claim to a personal understanding of what God wants. Therefore, Movement-wide agreement is, in principle, not necessary nor desirable, nor probably even possible. We each (if we are knowledgeable about the tradition, if we confront it seriously and take its claims and its wisdom seriously) have the ability, the freedom, indeed the responsibility to come to a [potentially differing] personal understanding of what God wants us to do.

In general, this application of personal autonomy applies more to the non-ethical commandments. No Jew may argue that the murder or stealing or adultery are permitted. Rather, personal discernment is active with the commandments and customs of how to worship as a Jew, eat as a Jew, dress as a Jew – the matters of everyday life and how they correspond to our personal holiness and meaning.

Thus, the Reform position includes the notion that each mitzvot does not have equal claim on us. The basic moral commandments are binding. Yet some commandments (the agricultural laws, or rules of Temple worship, for instance) are no longer possible to observe. Others (commandments related to certain aspects of marriage, gender, divorce, or contraception, for instance) come from a social context so foreign to our own that it would be impossible to conceive modern people finding holiness in their revival.

Yet some parts of the halachic tradition seem perfect correctives to the imbalances of life in modernity. Shabbat, for example, reminds us of the importance of balance as we struggle with time and the hectic pace of modern life. The various ethical imperatives remind us not to make idols of the self and instruct us on ways to protect human life and create a just society.

Reform Jews see halakhah as a communal discourse, an ongoing conversation through which we arrive at an understanding, however tentative, of what God and Torah require of us. As far as we are concerned, this conversation cannot be brought to a premature end by some formal declaration that “this is the law; all conflicting answers are wrong.”

Reform Jews are therefore open to the possibility and the desirability of religious innovation and creativity. We do not believe that existing forms of ritual observance are necessarily the only “correct” forms of observance from a Jewish perspective. We believe that the tradition permits us to adopt new ritual and ceremonial expressions which serve our religious consciousness better than those we have inherited from the past.

Permission to innovate, to be sure, is not an invitation to anarchy. Our innovations are in accordance with the basic guidelines by which the tradition defines and structures itself. Reform Judaism keeps one eye on the tradition; the other on the contemporary needs of our members: lay people and clergy alike, as together we create an evolving consensus as to where our boundaries lie.

Much of the above is grounded in the Reform approach to Torah and the scriptures. Reform Jews believe the texts contain our ancestor’s thoughts about God’s will and wisdom, but not God’s dictated words. The sacred texts are not inerrant or infallible – they are a collection of inspired writings that recorded our ancestor’s understandings of the Divine. The texts cannot serve as historical or scientific documents, and their moral application must be subtly, culturally applied. Since the Bible consists of many viewpoints, and sometimes contradictory ones, our reading is always selective.

Are Reform Jews “Under the Law”?

Some non-Jews criticize the legalistic aspect of traditional Judaism, saying that it reduces the religion to a set of rituals devoid of spirituality. While there are certainly some Jews who observe halakhah in this way, that is not the intention of halakhah, and it is not even the correct way to observe halakhah. When properly observed, halakhah can increase the spirituality in a person’s life, because it turns mundane acts, such as eating and getting dressed, into acts of religious significance.

Still, legalism is a temptation in Judaism. Let’s examine this a little further by starting with a general definition of legalism.

Legalism: A strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spirit. The judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws or rules. An obsession with obedience to the law and legal purity.

Is Reform Judaism prone to legalism? Reform Judaism’s core resides with the vision that the eternal covenant established at Sinai ordained a unique religious purpose for the Jewish people – a purpose grounded not in legalism, but in healing the world. Yet we also affirm that Judaism’s message is universal, aiming at the unity and perfection of humanity through the sacred partnership of grace between God and human beings – and that partnership involves moral commandments.

Throughout the ages it has been Israel’s mission to witness to Divine power in the face of every form of dehumanization, destruction, and evil. We live so as to realize the establishment of the reign of God – a vision of a new spiritual and worldly order marked by radical hospitality, care of the land, compassion, and justice. Therefore, care of the poor, generosity, the proper treatment of workers, welcoming the stranger, and so on – are all vital moral commandments that must be honored.

Reform Judaism calls for a de-emphasis on religious purity and legalism and focuses instead on self-improvement, the opening of heart, serving others, working toward a society of peace and justice.

Reform Jews recognize the Mosaic legislation/traditions as ancient attempts to forge a people and create a spiritual, ethical culture. Many aspects of the Mosaic code (ritual purity, dietary practices, dress, priestly purity, etc.) no longer apply or make sense in the modern world. However, Reform Jews accept the basic moral vision of the Hebrew Scriptures and their desire for love, justice, compassion, peace, and inclusion. We selectively engage those ceremonies and practices that elevate our lives. No spiritual practice fulfills its meaning unless it make us a better, more loving person.

Reform Judaism offers this dynamic way of life and faith to guide Jews and seekers along a clear path of ethical conduct grounded in our people’s historic values. Reform Jewish life adds depth, direction and substance to the lives of those who otherwise risk wandering in a material wasteland. Standing firmly in an authentic tradition, we respond to a world in need of hope by raising our moral sights instead of accepting ethical chaos. Reform Judaism teaches us to do what is just and right, based on our ancient teachings and our modern insights.

Reform Judaism is the “living expression of Torah and tradition in our modern lives” because of our unique responses to modern trends and new ideas. We widen the circle of acceptance for many Jews in ways that are not possible for more traditional Jewish movements.

And yet we always affirm our connection to the larger Jewish community, even those who would deny our place in their midst.

Following Rabbi Hillel, Reform Jews, and many, many other Jews reject legalism. We agree with Hillel that the heart of Jewish teaching is love – “Love your God and love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18)).” Love is the proper response to God and to the dignity of others.  Loving relationships therefore form the foundation and essence of Judaism – love is central, the rest is commentary.

Let me conclude with a wonderful, wry story from the Talmud (Menachot 29b) in which God and Moses get into an argument concerning the exact nature of God’s commandments. Moses, wanting clarification, asks God for the blessing of seeing the future sage Rabbi Akivah, a Jewish teacher from thousands of years later, conduct class. Akivah was renowned for his insightful, powerful teaching on Jewish law.

Miraculously, Moses finds himself sitting at the back of Akivah’s classroom, however, he does not understand a word that is being taught or even the context of the conversation – it seems to Moses that Akivah is talking about something very different than Jewish law as he understands it. However, his heart is consoled when a student asks for the source of the sage’s teaching and Akivah replies, “It is simply the law given to Moses on Sinai.”

Your thoughts? Comments? As always, feel free to leave a comment and join in the conversation.


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