Posted on

With Liberty and Justice: Day 29 – Interpreting the Commandments

Excerpted from With Liberty and Justice: The Fifty-Day Journey from Egypt to Sinai by Senator Joe Lieberman with Rabbi Ari D. Kahn, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

Day 29: Interpreting the Commandments

In the Book of Deuteronomy (4:2; 13:1), Moses twice instructs the Israelites and their descendants that they can never add to nor subtract from the words of God that he brought down from Sinai.

But the commandments were general statements of principle given more than three thousand years ago. From the outset, the people needed interpretation and guidance about how to apply them. In the years since, as the world has moved from the agricultural age to the industrial age and, more recently, to the information age, the need to adapt and change is even more acute. God, and Moses, understood there would be a need for a judicial process that would interpret and apply the law over time, as recorded in the Bible:

If you are unable to reach a decision in a case involving capital punishment, litigation, leprous marks, [or any other case] where there is a dispute in your territorial courts, then you must set out and go up to the place that God will have chosen, and appear before the Levitical priests [and other members of] the supreme court that exists at the time. When you present your case, they will declare a verdict. Since this decision comes from the place that God shall choose, you must scrupulously obey all their instructions to you, carefully following their every decision. [Besides this, in general,] you must keep the Torah as they interpret it for you, and follow the laws that they legislate for you. Do not stray to the right or left from their words. (Deut. 17:8–11)

A process was thereby established for permissible analysis and development of the law by credible authorities. What was prohibited was adding mitzvot, “commandments,” and claiming that these were the word of God transmitted at Sinai. Anyone who claims a divine mandate to add to or subtract from the law is, according to the Torah, a false prophet.

An additional basis for ongoing human input into Torah law is found in Leviticus: “You shall safeguard My statutes” (Lev. 18:30). This command became a mandate to “erect a [protective] fence around the Torah” (Mishna Avot 1:1) and establish rules that keep people as far as possible from violating God’s commandments and statutes.

The seminal compilation of Jewish oral law known as the Mishna preserved hundreds of years of rabbinic discussions regarding the interpretation of law and the creation of “protective fences,” from the early years of the Second Temple until approximately the year 200. These rabbinic discussions were analyzed, supplemented, and reapplied by Torah scholars over the next three hundred years, and resulted in the Talmud, “learning,” or Gemara. Both the Mishna and the Talmud were transmitted orally for generations, until the vicissitudes of exile and persecution placed the entire system in jeopardy. Eventually, the Oral Law was transcribed and the rabbis of every generation were entrusted with making contemporary applications of ancient law. This serious subject has been the object of Jewish humor. There is a story of a rabbi of old who had been asked many questions about how to apply a particular provision of the kosher laws. He prays to God for assistance and is shocked to hear the Voice of God (VOG) respond:

VOG: How can I help you, my dear rabbi?
Rabbi: Almighty God, many of my congregants have asked me about the commandment in Your Law that we should not cook the meat of a calf in the milk of its mother. Does that mean we can never eat meat and milk together?
VOG: You shall not cook the meat of a calf in the milk of its mother.
Rabbi: Does that mean we have to wait hours after we eat meat to eat milk products?
VOG: You shall not cook the meat of a calf in the milk of its mother.
Rabbi: Does that mean we have to have separate milk and meat plates, utensils, pots, and pans?
VOG: (After a pause) OK. Have it your way!

This joke makes an important point. Without the interpretation of the law by scholars and rabbis that began after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, when the Jewish people were forced into exile, the Jewish people might not even have survived to return to Israel as they did in the last century. And if Ezra and Nehemiah had not stepped forward to lead, legislate, and apply the commandments during the Exile, the Torah would surely not be as vibrant and relevant as it is today.