By The Book

My affinity for theology rarely leads me to places like Grand Forks North Dakota, but Fark linked to an interesting and well written article in the Grand Forks Herald.
The article discusses some modern approaches to an ancient dilemma in Christianity: Which commandments of the Bible are authoritative.

    Leviticus not only condemns a man “who lies with a male as with a woman” and the eating of pork. It also prohibits seafood without fins. And tattoos.

    So what makes one law still in force and another seemingly obsolete? Particularly when Jesus himself said “not one jot or one tittle” of the law would change?

Or to reverse the argument, if charging interest does not apply anymore because “times have changed,” then why can’t times change for homosexuality? Some Christians distinguish between moral, ceremonial, and civil laws, but these arbitrary categories merely shift the debate. Not only will people argue why some laws immutable and others not, but also why certain commandments are purely “civil” and not “moral?”
Not being a Christian theologian, I won’t attempt to answer this problem, and thankfully, I don’t have to. However, you might notice a similar dichotomy in the development of practical Jewish law. Despite claims of authority and oral tradition, Jews don’t always follow the laws of the Talmud. The popular myth is that Sepharadim follow the Rambam or Shulhan Arukh and Ashkenazim follow Ramo or the Mishna Berurah. Neither assumption is that simple and this formula doesn’t always hold true. R. Tendler summarized it best in one of my discussions with him: “we pasken like the Ramo, except when we don’t.”
Many people lack the education or patience (sometimes both) to appreciate and comprehend the intricacies of Jewish law. It’s much easier to give a congregation a one line sound-byte and say this is the law because X says so. Furthermore, I doubt that many Rabbis follow a coherent system of Jewish law (assuming they have one) beyond the simple, “this is what we do because this is what we do.” Thus, it’s not only easier for the congregation to digest the one liner, but it saves the Rabbis from actually thinking.
When Rabbis appeal to the authority of a text, they provide the simplest explanation for the law. Pragmatically this works for most congregations, especially in the short term. However, as congregants and laity get better educated, rabbis will have to provide better answers. People have already recognized inconsistencies in halakha, and need something better than “he said so.”
Of course, this would also mean training rabbis to give better answers, and that could take some time.


  1. MJ
  2. zev
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