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 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.”

When God Moons Us

The command of the Torah that Jesus claimed is most important begins with an important preamble, which I will talk about today.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

Deuteronomy c6

In this essay I will discuss the subversive and prophetic imagination found in the national story of the Jewish people—the liberation story of Moses. To that end, I will give special emphasis to the Hebrews’ most original and revolutionary gift to the world, monotheism. Modern people—being modern people—divorce this idea from its ancient context and in so doing miss most of its genius. Specifically, modern Christians use this verse to tell non-Christians they are going to burn in fire when they die because they don’t believe in the correct God, while modern secularists use this verse to characterize the Bible as arrogant and intolerant. Both of these ideas miss the mark. That a single God created all things is a progressive idea.

It is one of the most important ideas in the history of the world.

Before I begin, always remember the conventions and motivations of the Bible’s writers, which I belabor over and over on this blog. First, the history of Israel consists of successions of empires devastating and subjugating them, and, with few exceptions, everything in your Bible is a reaction to one of them. Second, and again with few exceptions, every Old Testament story is set during the empire previous to its writing, but is tailored to speak to life under the current empire. These stories were not inspired to tell the journalistic “history” of life under the previous empire, so much as to advance subversive arguments about the imperial systems of the writers’ day. These stories are a mixture of history and myth and take the form of see, this has happened to us before.

I say “myth,” but don’t take that to mean they are less than true.

It is out of that tradition that the Hebrew people offered the world the literary personification of their national hope—their prophet and liberator, Moses. Moses and the exodus story describe Hebrew life enslaved in the brick pits of Egypt in the heyday of its power. However, in the tradition I described above, the story and tradition of Moses was mostly born in the brick pits after the devastation wrought by the Assyrians and the Babylonians—the two earliest professional military superpowers of the ancient world.

In the exodus story, Moses grows up as a minister in the court of Pharaoh but later is forced to flee the country and live in the wilderness. Meanwhile, the Pharaoh decides to exploit the Hebrews as a source of cheap labor for his grand projects.

Let heavier work be laid upon the men that they may labor at it and pay no regard to lying words. So the taskmasters and the foremen of the people went out and said to the people, “Thus says Pharaoh.”

In the society described in the exodus story, society’s lowest people were useful only to the extent that they could meet production quotas. But constructing a society built on such gross oppression and quelling the inevitable unrest usually requires help—specifically help from the gods. To that end, the empires of the ancient world were awash in gods. As Walter Brueggemann writes, these gods were “immovable lords of order.” They were the backbone of the oppressive systems of the world’s empires. More than any other thing, their role was to control people’s imaginations. The functioning of those societies was evidence of the rightness of the religious systems because kings did prosper and bricks did get made.

The systems of imperial religion are never disinterested.

Today, we might identify the god of America as the stock market or the GDP and our brick workers in the dehumanized immigrants who work our fields, our hospitality sector, and our fast-food restaurants.

The subversive message in the exodus story was that the creator of all things wasn’t interested in supporting the imperial system, but those who lived in its shadow. God wasn’t a comfort to pharaoh and his taskmasters, but to the laborers in the brick pits.

And the people of Israel groaned under their bondage, and cried out for help, and their cry under bondage came up to God. And God heard their groaning.

And in response to the cries of the Hebrews, God called Moses.

The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. . . . And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

Moses was the first prophet. When most evangelical readers hear the word “prophet,” the idea that generally comes to mind is something like fortune teller, but that is almost never what prophets did. The prophetic tradition is a tradition of offering up word pictures that originate from outside the power structures of the imperial gods. Walter Brueggemann describes prophecy as “words from elsewhere,” and I think that’s right. They were artists, poets, street performers, social critics, and irritants.

In these modes, the prophets worked to fan the flames of society’s collective imagination.

Prophetic criticism consists in nurturing society away from cry-hearers who are inept at listening and indifferent in response and to mobilizing society to its grief. For this reason, empires, which have no capacity or intention for listening to grief, are the constant target of prophetic concern. You find this in the Bible from start to finish.

Fear was and is the primary means by which empires stifle the imagination of those within its influence, and, to this end, the imperial gods were up to the task. First and foremost, the gods of the empire were local deities. They were not concerned with the well-being of anyone but their local worshipers, and they offered protection against whatever group was considered the “other.”

For example, the chief god of the Babylonian empire, who gave sanction to brutality towards the savage “other” was Marduk. In the Babylonian creation story, Marduk became the chief god after a clash with the god of chaos and ocean water, Tiamat. The clash began when Tiamat’s husband sought to kill all the other gods because they created too much noise (literally “babel”) and he couldn’t sleep. Out of Tiamat’s death came the creation of the earth (not coincidentally in the same order of creation as found in the Genesis creation story). It was the Babylonian’s task, according to this story, to subjugate the babel of the world to the domain of Babylon and its chief god, Marduk.

The creation story of Genesis was a prophetic critique of the Babylonian story. If nothing else, notice that when God finished creating all things, God rested. We draw all kinds of lessons out of God resting on the seventh day of the story, but the original message heard by the workers in the brick pits was clear and undeniable: God does not need empires to keep scary barbarians in check and, that being the case, there remains no more need for empires. Dominion over the creation should be exercised by humankind broadly, and our relationship to the creation should be more like that of a gardner rather than as a warrior.

This gets me to monotheism.

In the exodus story, when Moses took the Hebrews into the Sinai desert, he instructed them in the most foundation tenet in all of Judaism: The God of the slaves on the underside of the empire is the only God, is one, and cannot be captured with human images. What’s happening here? Is this just arrogance? Is this exclusivism? Is this hubris? Again, its easy for modern people who have become accustomed to these ideas to dismiss it this way. As if to say, how dare they think they have an exclusive claim to the divine? But that kind of criticism is mostly a reaction to a modern remaking of God into the image of Marduk. That kind of criticism loses seriousness in light of the fact that the idea of there being one God, one creator of all things, and one God to be worshipped was not an idea that came from the empire, so as to dominate all other people and ideas.

The idea of monotheism came out of the slave class.

And this should make perfect sense. A world in which all people and all things come from the same creator is a world in which all people are equal. This is a world in which the slaves are on the same plane as their taskmasters. A world like this created by an invisible God is a world in which no one can harness the power of God to exploit other people. A world in which all people and all things come from the same creator is incompatible with empire.

Do you see its genius now? The ethical precept that all people are created equal isn’t controversial anymore, but it was completely foreign to the ancient world. The dignity of all people was not the ethos of Babylon, Greece, or Rome. The idea that a senator from Rome and a slave from Carthage were equal was unthinkable. The fact that we at least give lip service to this idea is completely due to the courage and inspiration of the Hebrew slaves in Babylon.

Interestingly, as the story progresses, Moses and the Hebrews struggle with this revolutionary idea. Even the people who would benefit most from more egalitarian societies can be the most stubborn defenders of the status quo. This is the power of the imperial gods. In the exodus story, the newly freed Hebrews want to go back to an understanding of God as like the gods of Egypt because that’s all they have ever known. Their imaginations have been stifled for centuries. They want to go back to gods that have physical qualities. Gods that can be seen, felt, and understood. Gods with boundaries. Gods with limits.

In one part of the story, Moses is alone on Mount Sinai and he too is tempted in this way. Moses is on the mountain and asks that God show him his “glory.” When most modern listeners hear that word in the story, the connotation is something like brightness or shininess or grandeur. But the Hebrew word we translate “glory,” which is kavod, literally means “weight.” What’s happening here? Moses wants to know God’s dimensions, as if they go this far but not that far. As if they protect us but not them. Moses’s idea of God is one who would make the Hebrews into the next world superpower.

His question is akin to asking God, “just how big a boy are you?”

To this, God responds that Moses’s questions reveals a categorical misunderstanding. God cannot be seen. God cannot be measured. God isn’t like the gods of the empire. God isn’t a local deity who protects the welfare of one group to the exclusion of other. God is a universal creator who connects all things. Under this god, the welfare of one group was no longer disconnected to the welfare of everyone else. All are connected and all matter.

Then something funny happens. God tells Moses that he will cause himself and his goodness to pass by him, and once God had passed him by, Moses would see—as it is written in the Hebrew—God’s ahoray. Your Bible translates this word as God’s “back.”

What it literally means is “rear parts.”

(I know this is the Bible, but it’s okay to grin).

This is why I love the Bible. Not only were the Hebrew writers for centuries willing to push the limits of human imagination, but they had a sense of humor while doing it. The slaves in Babylon dared to imagine a literary tradition of liberation from the oppressive gods of Egypt, but when its main character wanted to retreat back to the imperial religion of Egypt, what did God do?

God mooned him.