| |

SIDIC Periodical XIX - 1986/3
Law: A Way of Life (Pages 08 - 13)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

The Torah as Law in Judaism
Michael Wyschogrod


A Jew who writes about the "law" for a Christian audience almost automatically assumes a defensive posture. He is aware of the traditional criticism of the Jewish law by Christian authors and the temptation is to defend the Jewish understanding of law against these criticisms. Given the central role that critiques of the Jewish law have historically played in Christian self-definition and the prominence of these critiques in the Jewish-Christian debate of the past (we cannot really speak of a dialogue prior to this century), a defense of the Jewish understanding of the law against Christian criticism is inevitable. Such a defense is important to both faiths because otherwise the chasm between Judaism and Christianity becomes so deep that the very survival of the Hebrew bible in the Christian canon is endangered.

Torah - A Fundamental Interaction
II has often been pointed out that when the Septuagint translated Torah into Nomos, a process was set into motion whose harmful effects are still with us. The Torah cannot be separated from God's interaction with the people of Israel. h is this interaction which is fundamental and in the context of which everything else must be seen. lt is significant that the giving of the Torah is not the opening act of God's relationship with Israel. I t is God's command to Abraham to leave his native land and to embark on a journey to an unspecified destination (Gen. 12:1) that is the beginning of Jewish history. Many events transpire between the initial electron of the Jewish people in Abraham and the giving of the Torah on Sinai. Most important, the exodus from Egypt is an act of divine salvation which obligates the Jewish people to accept God's commandments. This is the crux of the covenant: there is a mutual relationship between God and Israel so that there is an exchange of benefits and obligations. The Torah is not a law that obligates the people in some juridical sense rooted in the binding character of law as such, but it is an element in Israel's relationship with the God who chose it and conferred upon it the gift of the Torah. Any tendency toward an autonomy of the Torah, toward any interpretation that weakens the Torah as an expression of God's sovereign will, is therefore a false understanding of Torah. But this is precisely what the translation of Torah as Nomos tends to do.

Scriptural Interweaving of Narration and Law
The contrast here is between narration and law. 'There is no book of the Hebrew bible that is all law without narration while there are many books of the Hebrew bible that are narration without being law. While it is true that legal codes without any narrative content appear later in Judaism, this is never the case in Scripture. I stress this because a story deals with the concrete that is not easily universalizable while law, by its very nature, deals with the universal. Law is most applicable in repeatable situations, while the story tends to focus on particular events. The Torah interweaves these two and thereby establishes the particular resonance of Jewish religiosity.
The Torah could have been all story without any law. There would have been something attractive about this possibility. The Torah would then have been the record of God's interaction with humanity and with Israel. From the stories, certain conclusions about God's message to his people and his desire for its conduct could have been drawn. These would not have been very specific because it is not in the nature of stories to yield specific conclusions with respect to conduct or even belief. Stories tend to point in a direction, to set a tone and to project a spirit. It could have been God's will to do just that, leaving the specifics to human judgment. He might have decided that the message of love was sufficient, that it was enough to command human beings to love one another and that, once they acted out of genuine love, the right decisions would automatically follow. But God did not choose this approach. While the Torah has many stories, it also has laws. Both must therefore be taken seriously.
It is important not to approach this question in an a priori spirit. The question is not what God could have done or even, as some seem prepared to argue, what he should have done, but rather what he did do. He chose to reveal a Torah which contains both stories and laws and it is both that have shaped Judaism.
As guides to conduct, stories and laws are different but not absolutely different. I have already said that stories tend to point a direction while laws tend to be more specific, requiring particular actions and forbidding others. While this is generally true, it is also true that laws also require interpretation and application to specific situations. Stories, on the other hard, properly interpreted, can also be understood as requiring certain actions and forbidding others. The difference between stories and laws is therefore relative, more a matter of degree or emphasis than of principle. In a sense, the English common law system is a system of law based on stories. The stories are the particular cases that serve as precedents. English common law does not formulate general principles. It presents the judge with number of cases similar but not identical to the case under review. Based on the decisions reached in the previous cases and the degree of similarity or dissimilarity between those cases and the present one, the judge makes a decision which, in turn, becomes one more precedent to be applied to future cases.

The Essence of Torah
The Torah is God's teaching of the path in which Israel is to walk (halachah, from a root which means walking). The Jewish people thus takes very seriously the whole of the document that is the Torah. It is essential to capture the spirit of the Torah, to point our actions in the direction in which both the stories and the laws of the Torah point. But it is also essential to obey the details, even if we cannot easily fathom the underlying direction in which they point. The most underlying direction in which everything points disobedience to God. Paradoxically, that is most prominent when we do not understand much else about the command.
Some of God's commands seem to make sense to us, while others do not. Broadly speaking, the ethical commandments make sense while the "cultic" or "ceremonial" commandments do not. We think we understand why God forbids murder and theft but we do not understand why God forbids the Jew to cat animals that do not both have cloven hoofs and chew their cud (Lev 11:1-2). The world has therefore had link difficulty in accepting the ethical teachings of the Hebrew Bible. But only Jews have remained faithful to the ethical commandments as well as those that do not deal with ethical topics.
The first and most important point that must be made is that the divisions of the commandments into the ethical and the others is non-biblical. On the whole, the Pentateuch does not make the distinction. We find the ethical and cultic commandments side by side. What is significant about a commandment is that it expresses God's loving will for the conduct of his people. With very few exceptions, the Pentateuch does not justify a commandment or explain its purpose. It is not necessary for man to know why God commands this or forbids that. I have always felt that if all of God's commandments made sense to me, the suspicion that they are really human in origin would probably be strengthened. Because God's reason must be infinitely superior to that of man, it would be strange indeed if no commandments issued from God that did net appear reasonable to man. Man's trust in God is expressed by his willingness to obey commandments whose reason and purpose he does not understand. This does not mean that man must seek that which transcends his reason and bold in contempt whatever his mind can grasp. Human reason is also one of God's creations and is a reflection of the image of God in which man is created. But man cannot insist that everything in God's teaching must consist of insights that man's reason, unassisted by God's revelation, would have discovered ėndependently.
Furthermore, even in the ethical realm, God's law does not always correspond to the natural law. h certainly does so in the vast majority of instances. But Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his san Isaac and his readiness to do so was his greatest merit (Gen 22: 1-18). Saul lost the throne of Israel because he did not destroy the Amalekites and Agag, their king (1 Sam 15). This is not the place te investigate fully the ethical and theological implications of those and similar incidents. We need only note that there are severe limitations on the degree to which human reason can grasp God's will with respect to the ethical law as well as the cultic.

The Essence of Judaism
But it is particularly with respect to those commandments of the Torah that deal with the cultic (to use the expression of Sr. Thomas Aquinas) that Israel's fidelity is most clearly expressed. While here and there we glimpse reasons for these commandments, most often we do not. They are given as divine commands and it is fundamental to the faith of Israel that it is the obligation of the Jewish people to obey God's will. In fact, it is this determination to obedience that is the essence of Judaism. It is the theme that unifies the whole of the Hebrew bible. God demands Israel's obedience. This demand is not an impossible one. Often, Israel fulfills God's demand. "I remember the devotion of your youth,° says God to Israel (Jer 2:2), "your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown." The obedience of Abraham foreshadows the obedience of the Jewish people. While the election that was bestowed on Israel was not deserved but was a free act of divine favor, it is also not entirely without echo on the part of the people of election. The price that the Jewish people has paid for its election has not been a small one and it is a price that Jews seem prepared to continue to pay.
Needless to say, it is not only obedience that has characterized Israel's relationship to the Torah. It is not easy to live up to God's demands, neither to the spirit nor Lo the letter of the law. The Hebrew bible does not hesitate to document Israel's failings. The royal histories of other peoples tend to dwell on great victories and remain very silent about defeats. This is not so with the bible, which recounts the founding history of the Jewish people. Here, if anything, it is the failures that are emphasized, sometimes almost to the exclusion of the successes. Israel sins, and sins again and again, and each time it is chastised by God. In the suffering of its punishment, Israel repents and is saved. But as soon as God has extricated it from its predicament, Israel reverts to its old ways and the cycle
begins anew. Israel's tendency to sin is deep-seated and almost incorrigible, or so it would seem.
What does this tell us about the Torah? Does the Torah demand the impossible of Israel? Is the Torah a crushing burden that can only lead to the condemnation of those who try to live up to its demands? Was the Torah given to Israel only to drive Israel to despair so that it would be forced to throw itself on the mercy of God? Is the Torah really a law of death rather than of life?

A Question for Jews and Christians Alike
These are questions that must he answered with great care, not only because they are most germane to the Jewish-Christian dialogue, but also because the correct answer is vital for Judaism's proper self-understanding. It would be easy to enter a genera) denial to all the charges implicit in these questions. The Torah can be obeyed, it could be and has been argued, because man has free will. He has a good and an evil impulse but the power of the Torah is such that it enables the Jew to choose the right over the wrong, if he so desires. Every commandment that is obeyed results in the Jew accumulating a quantity of merit while disobedience results in the accumulation of
demerits. At the end, a calculation is made and, depending on which predominates, a positive or negative judgment results.
Such an attitude is not the authentic self-understanding of the Jew. No Jew stands before God and says: 'bear God, judge me according to what I deserve. Please do not give me more than I deserve but also not less. Do me no favors but give me what is coming to me." No Jew I have ever heard of has taken this attitude and it is inconceivable to me that any Jew ever will. The Jew is perfectly aware that if God were judge him strictly according to what he deserves, there would be no hope for him. In the daily morning liturgy we find a text dating to Talmudic times which makes this very clear:
Master of all worlds! It is not on account of our own righteousness that we offer our supplications before you, but on account of your great compassion. What are we? What is our life? What is our goodness? What our righteousness? What our salvation? What our strength? What our might? What can we say in your presence, Lord our God and God of our fathers? Indeed, all the herpes are as nothing before you, the men of renown as if they never existed, the wise as if they were without knowledge, the intelligent as though they lacked understanding, for most of their doings are worthless and the days of their lives are vain in your sight, and man is not far above the beast, for all is vanity.
This text is incompatible with any sort of works righteousness. It could nor be recited by anyone who thought that it is by means of his meritorious deeds that he found favor in God's eyes.
Does ft then follow that the Torah is without value since it is nor by means of the merit accumulated by obeying it that man is reconciled to God? I do not think this follows at all. The Torah does not make impossible demands of man. h is within man's power to obey the Torah. Were this not the case, disobedience of the Torah would hardly be a sin since no one cm be held responsible for disobeying a law that is not within his power to obey. While the Torah is God's gift of love to the Jewish people, it is also a fact that human beings, not being angels, do not always live up to the demands of the Torah. Jewish history has amply demonstrated this. But we must maintain some perspective about this. It is not the case that Israel has simply always violated the Torah. Nor is it the case that it has always obeyed it. The truth is somewhere in-between. There has been much obedience and much disobedience. If pressed to say which has been greater, the obedience or the disobedience, I would opt for disobedience, but not by a very great margin. Starting perhaps with the sin of the golden calf if not earlier, there has been a consistent record of deep-seated disobedience. But there has also been deep fidelity in Jewish history, biblical and post-biblical. In spite of the vast suffering that has come over the Jewish people, the people has not rejected its election. There still is a Jewish people in the world, even after the holocaust. Today, after the holocaust, every Jewish parent who raises a Jewish child is aware of what might happen and yet Jewish parents continue to raise Jewish children. So there is a mixture of obedience and disobedience.
Nevertheless, the disobedience is also immense and so is the punishment and suffering that are the result of disobedience. How has Israel been able to live with this history? Not infrequently, it has been taunted for its powerlessness which was interpreted as a sign of its rejection by God. Condemned to live as a more or lese unwelcome guest in civilizations dominated by its two daughter religions whose adherents numbered in the hundreds of millions, Judaism seemed like a failure recognized as such by all except by itself. How did such a people survive without a total loss of self-esteem, a phenomenon widely observed among oppressed peoples?

Love is the Answer
The basic answer lies in the love with which this people feels itself loved by God. There is an underlying and deeply felt though often not consciously recognized sense of being loved by God that permeates Jewish consciousness. This is a very special love that does not detract or conflict with God's love for the entire human family. h is a love that goes back to Abraham, is basically inexplicable and continues on to his descendants in whose bodies the covenant with
Abraham is inscribed and who never f ail to invoke the merits of the Patriarchs as they beseech God. This sense of being loved by God is so overwhelming that it triumphs over all the pain that the rod of God and the anger of the nations have imposed on Israel. There is therefore no death wish in Judaism. Instead, there is a great desire to live, a powerful affirmation of life. Judaism is perhaps the only religion in the world that considers celibacy a sin. The commandment "be fruitful and multiply" (Gen 1:22) imposes on the Jew the duty to found a family, to become the parent of children. God loves human beings and therefore wants them to be born. And because the redemption of humanity will come through the Jewish people, God does not want a world without Jews. To see to the survival of the Jewish people is therefore the religious duty of every Jew.
Ultimately, the sense of being loved by God to which I have referred is expressed in the conviction that Israel's election is irrevocable, as are God's gifts connected with this election. Israel's sin is, of course, punished and sometimes severely so. But God will never cast his people away. The punishment will be temporary and after God's anger has passed, his mercy will save Israel. That is the meaning of the prayer I quoted earlier.
The severity of the punishment connected with disobeying the Torah must not be underemphasized. The curses of Deuteronomy (28:15-68) do not make for pleasant reading, particularly in view of the fact that almost all of them have been inflicted on the Jewish people. lf, nevertheless, Jews cm dance with joy on Simchat Torah, the festival at the conclusion of the annual cycle of Torah readings, it is because the Torah's curses yield to God's love for Israel. Ultimately, the love is greater than the curses and if the Torah and its requirements are the medium through which the curses are transmitted, it is also the medium through which his infinitely greater love for Israel is also transmitted. The joy of the Torah, the joy of fulfilling God's commandments, often without understanding the reasons behind them, is a joy in which the Jew is happy to please God, just because he commanded what he commanded and just because we have the privilege of carrying out what he commanded.

The Divine Imperative of the Torah
We have already distinguished between the narrative and legal portions of the Torah. Within the legal part of the Torah, we distinguished between the moral and the ritual commandments. The moral commandments correspond to the natural law (you shall not murder, you shall not steal, etc.) while the ritual commandments (dietary laws, not to mix linen and wool, etc.) consist of commandments and prohibitions whose rationale is generally not obvious. It is of the utmost importance to understand that the Torah itself does not emphasize such distinctions. For the Torah there are only divine commandments that are to be obeyed. This is most clearly true of the Pentateuch. It has often been maintained that the dėstinction between the ritual and moral commandments begins to play a central role in the prophets who often condemn those who scrupulously obey the ritual commandments but rob widows and orphans. There is no doubt that the prophets have little respect for such persons. They condemned vigorously those who think they can curry favor with God by means of sacrifices but mistreat fellow human beings who are vulnerable. But it would be a mistake to conclude from this that the prophets condemned sacrifices. They condemned the combination of sacrifices with unjust action but there is no reason to believe that they considered only the ethical portion of the
Torah important. It is true that, on balance, the biblical record and the rabbinic tradition place greater weight on the ethical than on the ritual commandments. After all, there are no prophets who chastise those who feed the hungry and care for widows but neglect the
sacrifices. The absence of this criticism may simply be the result of the non-existence of those who scrupulously obeyed the ethical laws and neglected the rituals while the converse combination seems to have been well represented. Thus, while I am wiIling to grant a certain preeminence to obeying the moral law, I am not prepared to concede that the ritual law thereby recedes into insignificance. It remains an integral part of God's demand of the Jewish people.

A Christian View of Mosaic Law
What happens to this demand in Christianity? It is clearly no longer understood as obligatory. On the one hand, the whole of the Hebrew bible (Old Testament) is affirmed in Christianity as the word of God preserved by the Jewish people without significant corruption. This is clearly to be distinguished from the position of Islam that accuses the Jews of having significantly distorted the true revelation to the advantage of Israel and the disadvantage of the truth. For the church, the Hebrew bible, in the version it was transmitted by Israel, is the word of God. Nevertheless, the church does not feel obligated to carry out the Mosaic law, or the "Old Law" as it is often termed.
For Christianity, what is living and what is dead in the law of the Hebrew bible? This is a question that naturally interests a Jewish student of Christianity.
While almost all Christian authors deal to some extent with the question of the Mosaic law, it is St. Thomas Aquinas who deals with it in particular detail (Summa Theologiae, la2ae, 98-108). As can be expected, his basic strategy is to divide the Mosaic law into its ethical and ceremonial components (the judicial precepts which apply the natural law to concrete situations need not concern us here). The ethical component of the Mosaic law corresponds to the natural law which is binding on all rational creatures and is not affected by the coming of Jesus as the Christ. But it is otherwise with the ceremonial laws which deal with worship of God. These are no longer binding after the coming of Christ. And more: they are not only no longer binding but to obey them after the coming of Christ is to commit a mortal sin. What brought about this remarkable change, from being the revealed will of God, violation of which constituted a sin, to becoming the very opposite, obedience to which constitutes a sin?
The "ceremonies of the Old Law", writes Thomas (103,4, Reply), "signified Christ as to be born and to suffer, whereas ours signify him as having been horn and having suffered. Therefore, as a man would sin mortally who, in professing his faith, were to say that Christ was to he horn, which the ancient fathers said devoutly and truthfully, so one would sin mortally who observed the ceremonies which those of old kept with devotion and fidelity." The heart of his case is the assertion that the purpose and meaning of the ceremonial part of the Mosaic law was to foreshadow the coming of Christ. Those who obeyed the ceremonial law before Christ were therefore signifying their faith in the truth
of the prediction they expressed. But to obey the ceremonial law after Christ is to predict that the redeemer is yet re come when he has already come and that is a mortal sin. In this way, the coming of Christ has turned what was previously virtue into vice.
For the Jewish render, the claim that the whole of the ceremonial law had no othcr function than to foreshadow the coming of Christ is difficult to understand. How do the dietary laws, the menstrual laws and the prohibition against wearing garments woven of linen and flax (Lev 19,191 foreshadow the coming of Christ? And why does adherence to there laws after Christ constitute a denial that he has come? Did Christ himself not say that he did not come to abolėsh the law (Mt 5:17)?
Christian writers usually divide the Mosaic law temporally: before Christ when it was binding and after Christ when it no longer is. But they generally neglect the distinction between Jews and gentiles. From the Jewish point of view, the ceremonial law is binding only on Jews. Paul's arguments against the law were written in letters addressed to gentiles with the purpose of discouraging gentiles from adopting circumcision and the law. Is it not possible that Paul considered the
law obligatory for Jews, including those who carne to faith in Jesus? And if so, ought not Jews in the church retain their loyalty to the Mosaic law? At the very least, ought adherence to the Mosaic law not be considered a possibility for Jewish Christians rather than an occasion for mortal sin?

* Dr. Michael Wyschogrod lectures in the Department of Philosophy of Baruch College of the City University of New York.


Home | Who we are | What we do | Resources | Join us | News | Contact us | Site map

Copyright Sisters of Our Lady of Sion - General House, Rome - 2011