Stop Calling Judaism “Legalistic”

These are the laws, rulings and teachings that God gave to the people of Israel on Mount Sinai through Moses.

Leviticus c26

For nearly two thousand years, the Jewish rabbis have been telling a brash and ingenious story. The story—called a midrash—expounds upon the biblical story found in the book of Numbers where Moses overlooked the promised land from atop a mountain. A good way to think of midrash is it’s like fan fiction, but for the Bible.

In this story, Moses sees God decorating some of the Hebrew letters in a scroll of the Torah. Apparently the decorative choices are important. Some letters are adorned with various crowns and thorns, but others aren’t. And Moses wants to know the meaning behind these crowns and thorns.

Importantly, when this story was first told, Rabbi Akiva and subsequent rabbis had been in the process of remaking Judaism after Rome had destroyed its temple in Jerusalem. Because so much Jewish law and identity as described in the Bible assumes the existence of a temple, the temple’s destruction put Judaism—let alone its faithful adherents— in existential crisis. The temple was foundational to everything, and if Judaism was to survive nothing short of remaking the ground would do.

Fortunately, Judaism was ready. Built into the very mechanisms of Judaism’s ritual and repetition were also mechanisms for dynamic and liberal change. This work required debate, creativity, and inspiration. And to argue what and how and why certain changes needed to be made, Rabbi Akiva and other rabbis took liberty to draw inspiration from anywhere.

Including how certain Hebrew letters in the words of the Torah were traditionally decorated with crowns and thorns (because who would ever be interested in a crown and thorns placed over a word?)

As the story goes, Moses asks God why he doesn’t just explain the meaning of the decorations to him right then and there, and God responds, “A person called Akiva will appear a few generations from now, and he will explain each thorn on these letters and generate mountains of laws from them.” Moses asks to see him, so God instructs Moses to “walk backward.” In a bit of literary flourish, Moses walks backward . . . and into the future.

(You thought Back to the Future was just an 80s movie, didn’t you?)

There, he finds himself positioned to view a classroom in which Rabbi Akiva is teaching his students the law of Moses. What’s funny about the scene is that as the rabbi argues a point about the law in front of the class, Moses—Israel’s lawgiver—has no clue what he is talking about. He even becomes distressed, thinking he must have missed something while up on Mount Sinai. But when a student in the classroom asks Akiva how he arrived at the point he was advancing, he replies that God had given Moses this law on Mount Sinai, and Moses, we are told, finds great comfort in this answer.

I share this endearing and whimsical story because every time I’m forced to be in a place and someone in that place is given a captive audience and that person uses that place to teach that captive audience about the Old Testament and when they talk about the Old Testament they carelessly fling around Judaism as legalistic and stuck in tradition,

I

seriously

just

want

to

puke.

I could have shared many other of rabbinic Judaism’s great midrashic tales, but I chose the story about time-traveling Moses because it goes against the grain of so many of fundamentalist Christianity’s most deeply held assumptions. Contrary to most modern Christian thought, Judaism is a religion of audacious innovation, liberal use of the Bible, and willingness to evolve from what would seem to be a text’s “original intent.” I think this story captures the spirit of that.

Of course Judaism has rules.

Lots of rules.

And rituals.

And debates about its rules.

And about its rituals.

But fundamentalist Christianity adds a poison to these otherwise neutral qualities. Jewish legalism is assumed to be stuck looking backward. It is assumed to be caught up in inflexible standards that, once given, never change. Where there are problems, it is assumed that the problem lies in straying from something from long ago. I hope to convey how radically different Judaism is to these irresponsible caricatures.

For example, the text of the book of Deuteronomy commands that a rebellious child be stoned—no questions asked, no exceptions given. And because, ironically, fundamentalist Christianity is the very thing that it projects onto Judaism, such people will speak real words and those words will actually communicate that at one time it was God’s plan to kill children. That is in contrast to the rabbis. Despite the command being perfectly clear to any neutral reader, the rabbis categorically denied that God permitted this practice. Instead, they explained that the reason God placed that command in the Torah was . . . wait for it . . . to teach people how to interpret the Torah well so as to prevent it from ever happening.

Notice the hilarious degree of audacity (or if you will, chutzpah). But also notice the method. The rabbis never censored the Bible. They never struck the command out of the Bible. They just worked the Bible and worked tradition in whatever way was required to produce a just outcome. Because for all the Judaic innovation that has happened over the centuries, all Judaic innovation begins with the text of the Bible. Remember, for Moses to go forward, he first had to go backward.

But forward they went, nevertheless.

The rabbis claimed that the Bible gave them the authority to interpret, amplify, modify and even occasionally abrogate parts of the Torah. Ever since the canon of the Old Testament closed, Judaism has evolved with the times to such an extent that the Old Testament text is a very bad way to understand Judaism. Many people smarter than me argue that this was true even before the New Testament was written.

You may be wondering what in the world—let alone the Bible—the rabbis latched onto in order to claim this.

Go back to the verse I quoted at the top. In the book of Leviticus, the text says that God gave the law to Moses on Mount Sinai, and the rabbis paid special attention to that word “gave.” If God had given the law of Moses as a gift, the law was no longer God’s; it was humankind’s. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a gift. And since it was humankind’s, humankind had the authority to do what it wanted with it.

In another story, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua are in a rabbinic academy debating a point of the law, and all the rabbis disagree with Rabbi Eliezer. Then the voice of God enters the room and tells everyone that actually only Rabbi Eliezer has interpreted the law correctly. However—and, again, contrary to the reflexes of each and every fundamentalist Christian—the story says that the rabbis basically tell God to butt out and go back to Heaven. They even quote to God Deuteronomy c30 v12-14, which says that the Torah is not in Heaven, but is on the Earth.

Perhaps the best way to put it comes in the styling of a certain Rabbi you may have heard of—the law was made for humankind, not humankind for the law.

As someone who grew up zealous for only the most fundamentalist version of Christianity you could imagine, everything I just shared remains shocking to me. I know it in my head, but I struggle to believe it in my heart. Real Judaism and the straw version of Judaism I was taught are not close. As one can see from these stories, God has a high view of humankind and its capacity for ruling the world.

(You also get this from the Beatitudes).

But what I read on the Facebook walls and Instagram stories of people who grew up like I did are expressions humanity’s inability to govern ourselves. We are fallen and need an unchanging standard because our emotions and feelings will otherwise get the better of us. And I can already hear the pushback. If this is what Judaism is like, thinks the fundamentalist, then clearly this is what Jesus came down to Earth to correct.

I disagree.

First, Judaism was creating midrash long before the New Testament was written, and the people who wrote the New Testament used lots of it. The New Testament is full of rabbinic inventions that are not found in the Old Testament. I agree with those people who say that the Old Testament is a bad way of understanding the Judaism that is presented in the New Testament. You need to be aware of Judaism’s innovations to read the New Testament well.

Second, the New Testament writers engaged in some wild midrash themselves. They were perfectly willing to play fast and loose with the original intent Old Testament text if it furthered the point they were advancing. Notice the way Matthew c2 v14-15 works a magic trick on Hosea c11 v1. I’ve written a lot on this topic. Click anywhere on this blog and I think you’ll see that Matthew was not a one-and-done phenomenon.

Finally—and this is important—the New Testament writers went to great lengths to explain that Rabbi Jesus gave the church the same liberal authority that the rabbis had claimed. His statement “I’m giving you the keys to the kingdom. Whatever you bind on Earth is bound in Heaven and whatever you loose on Earth is loosed in Heaven,” is but one example of this. Jesus never intended that the Bible would stand for anything less than broad human flourishing.

Yet the modern churchgoer equates worship of God with perfect fidelity to the Bible. I think that’s wrong—specifically, I think it trades worship of God for worship of a text—but that is an honest position you can take. However, if that is your position, you must stop calling Judaism “legalistic.”

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2 thoughts on “Stop Calling Judaism “Legalistic”

  1. Joe Littlejohn says:

    Hi Chris,

    This is Joe Littlejohn. As you know, I have long stopped commenting on the specifics of your blog. Nevertheless, I still read them. As you know, the impasse occurs because of fundamental differences in the way Scripture should be viewed. Progress toward a unified understanding of any Biblical topic is difficult enough even when all parties share certain convictions about the nature of Scripture. In contrast, it is virtually impossible to arrive at a unified understanding if the parties involved do not share similar convictions as their starting point. In the end, they may not even share the idea that one of our goals should be a unified understanding.

    Of course, the implications that flow from these differences are not small insignificant conclusions. To the contrary, some of the implications challenge the very nature of Christian unity. While it is, for me, a sad state of affairs when parties arrive at such an impasse, I find myself powerless to move the needle.

    Of course, I don’t believe that God is pleased about such matters but daring to point out the source of His displeasure carries its own risks. At that point, many people revert to silence because they feel incapable of making progress. I’m sure we have all witnessed such responses.

    One thing is for sure, no one will ever accuse you of being a lazy writer or of possessing an inferior intellect. Whether or not you are getting closer to or further away from the core of Christianity is a matter between you and God.

    • I appreciate you reading, and I agree with you. We have differences that begin at the most foundational level. I also agree that those differences have tremendous implications. It doesn’t upset me at all for you to point that out. I’ve felt for a long time that what is called the “Christian Left” and the “Christian Right” (and which both think of themselves “Christian”) are altogether different religions and that we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. Of course no one has to be ugly about it, but I think it’s worth it to just say that.

      Anyway, thanks again for reading. I appreciate your feedback.

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