Halakhah, the general term for Jewish law, comes from the verb “to walk” and thus signifies a “way” of walking, not just down a road, but through the journey of life itself. The Sages of the Talmud counted 613 commandments in the Torah and noted that 365 negative commandments corresponded to the days of the solar year, while the 248 positive commandments corresponded to the bones in the human body (Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 23b). The lesson? That halakhah, Jewish law, is meant to be all-encompassing. But these 613 commandments hardly represent the complete system of Jewish law. The totality comprises the legal material of the rabbinic period (the Mishnah, Talmud, etc.), the legal codes and the vast body of rabbinic responses to legal questions, tshuvot, a collective corpus that spans about 1,800 years. When an individual rabbi or rabbinical court decides a question of Jewish law, in theory, that decision should take into consideration all relevant sources and previous decisions.
The purpose of this legal structure is not to deprive us of free will, to produce automatons who glide mindlessly through life, but to create opportunities to discover and carry out God’s will at every turn of the road. Joseph Soloveitchik put it this way: “Judaism declares that man stands at the crossroads and wonders about what path he shall take. Before him there is an awesome alternative e — the image of God or the beast of prey . . . and it is up to man to decide and choose.”* To choose to observe halakhah is to submit to the truth that we are diminished — and the world is endangerd — when we approach that crossroads without a reliable guide. And for Jews over the centuries, that guide has been halakhah.
That said, different denominations of Judaism relate to halakhah so differently that a comment Franz Rosenzweig made in 1920 still rings true: “Today the Law [halakhah] brings out more conspicuously the difference between Jew and Jew than between Jew and gentile.”* Orthodoxy and the Conservative Movement are deeply halakhic but have adopted sharply differing legal positions on a variety of issues. The Conservative Movement’s embrace of egalitarianism (equal participation of women and men) or its decision to permit driving to synagogue on Shabbat illustrate this divergence. Orthodoxy views both positions as illegitimate departures from the norms of Jewish law.
For nearly a century, Reform Judaism accepted the ethical dimension of Jewish law, but rejected the ritual component (e.g., the laws limiting work on the Sabbath or keeping kosher).
In 1999, the Reform Movement adopted a much more nuanced view.
We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. Some of these mitzvot, sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times.*
Greater openness to ritual has arisen because as classical Reform Judaism no longer felt quite so compelling and was shorn of so many elements of practice, it was increasingly difficult to pass down from one generation to the next.
The position of Reconstructionist Judaism, the smallest and youngest of the movements, is often summed up by an aphorism of Mordecai Kaplan, its founder: “The Past has a vote, not a veto.” Reconstructionism stresses the view that rather than subordinating independent judgment to the will of God, “moral spiritual faculties are actualized best, when the individual makes his/her own choices.*
Our religious traditions are grounded in the belief that God reveals the divine self to us. Yet, as many of the biblical stories attest, God’s presence may be elusive, at times apparent only in the “sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12). God “speaks” through Scripture, the events of our lives and the beliefs and practices of our religious tradition.
But we often confuse God’s ways with our own misdirected desires. Clearly, creation is not flourishing. Each day’s news bears witness to human cruelty, dishonesty, excessive consumption, manipulative relationships and untrammeled pursuit of wealth, status and power. Even knowing what is right, often we choose to do wrong. We sin.
Law is intended as a counterpoint to our selfishness, rationalizing and destructive behaviors. It establishes boundaries within which we live; it provides for the common good. Within our religious traditions, law offers a way within which we might walk; it is, as it were, a “guide to the feet” (see the Canticle of Zechariah, Luke 1:79) so that our actions might align with God’s desires for us. Our call is to recognize the divine image in which we were created and to live in accord with it. God is not a “petty Cosmic Patrolman” but one who “loves us enough to care when we stray. And who has given us commandments to help us find the way home.”* A wise person once told me that doing God’s will means living out of one’s deepest core—and developing that degree of self-knowledge requires us to live attentively, for which law serves as a teacher.
Like Judaism, the concept of religious law is central to Muslims. Islam is a way of life. All actions of people are sacred. There is no difference between spiritual and everyday life in Islam. Whether you are in a workplace or in a place of worship, all is counted as service to God and is rewarded as long as one sincerely makes an effort to improve the quality of life on earth.
The Qur’an emphasizes living the Islamic way of life by obeying the Shari`ah, Islamic Law. The Qur’an says: “BEHOLD, We have bestowed upon thee from on high this divine writ, setting forth the truth, so that thou may judge between people in accordance with what God has taught thee. Hence, do not contend with those who are false to their trust” (4:105). The Qur’an calls those who reject the divine law or prefer other laws to the divine law as evildoers and mischief makers. One verse warns the early Israelis: “And We ordained for them in that [Torah]: A life for a life, and an eye for an eye, and a nose for a nose, and an ear for an ear, and a tooth for a tooth, and a [similar] retribution for wounds; but he who shall forgo it out of charity will atone thereby for some of his past sins. And they who do not judge in accordance with what God has revealed — they, they are the evildoers!” (5:105).
The objective of the Shari`ah is to provide comfort, improve standards of living, protect the environment, make living easy and remove hardships. Basic necessities of life should be equally available to all and the protection of life guaranteed. The law is subject to interpretation by experts to continue to improve it according to space and time.