The Psalmist says, “Teach me to do Your will, for You are my God” (143: 10). Striving to do God’s will provides a compass amidst the sea of life’s most roiling questions. Does my life still retain a sense of purpose? Does it possess integrity? To search out God’s will means to measure my life against the ultimate standard of meaning and goodness. Jewish tradition helps reveal God’s way. Still, it’s so easy to go through the motions — and false gods are everywhere. So, twice every day in the traditional liturgy we pray that we may “keep Your commandments, do Your will and serve You with a full heart.”*
Anthropomorphism: assigning human qualities to the Divine, e.g., God has a “will.”
We have, of course, no other way of speaking about the incomprehensible God, whose ways lie far beyond our ken. The magnificent poetry of the prophet Isaiah challenges us to remember that the word spoken by God always transcends our full understanding. In image and metaphor and mystery, we approach the living God.
Thus, I prefer not to speak of the “will” of God because it seems so often reduced to something that religious authorities know with certitude. Rather, I tend to speak of God’s desire, asking, “What is it that God desires for the flourishing of creation? How might I attune myself to live in accord with God’s desires?” Others, mindful that the phrase “God’s will” suggests a thing rather than a relationship, speak of God’s call as reflecting the “open, relational, and non-predetermined nature of God’s relationship with us.”*
Five times a day when Muslims pray, they ask God to “Guide me to the straight path” of Islam. The Qur’an frequently commands Muslims to “obey God and obey His Messenger” (3:132, 4:59). Every Muslim wishes to please God and have God be pleased by him/her (5:119, 9:100). There are a lot of temptations and distractions in this life so that a Muslim is afraid of arousing God’s displeasure. When I stand and worship, I pray for God’s acceptance of my prayer. When I eat, I check that I eat food that is Halal (permissible) and not Haram (forbidden) in Islam. To a Muslim, fulfilling God’s will means looking for decency and beauty in all aspects of life and rejecting all sorts of ills and abominations.
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.
In one sense, Judaism has been rather tolerant of dissent. Virtually any page of Talmud reports conflicting positions that have happily co-existed over the centuries. The Talmud even transmits the teachings of its most well-known heretic Elisha ben Abuyah, although it ascribes them to Acher, ‘Other.” A heavenly voice resolves a legal dispute between Hillel and Shamai by declaring, “Both these and these are the words of the living God.”* But as the conclusion to the preceding story of Rabbi Eliezer illustrates, dissent is not always tolerated so easily. All objects that Rabbi Eliezer had ruled were clean were burnt in a fire and his colleagues excommunicated him. The excommunication was revoked only on his deathbed.
Jewish history has seen its share of heresy and schism. A few examples:
- A heresy that began in the early centuries of the Common Era and runs through rabbinic literature over more than 500 years involved the question of whether there were “Two Powers in Heaven.” Some scholars believe that rabbinic polemics on this theme helped articulate the boundaries between rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.*
- In the eighth century a movement known as Karaism (from the Hebrew mikrah, “Scripture”) developed in Babylon and spread through the Near East. Karaites denied the legitimacy of rabbinic Judaism and sought to revert to religious practice as described in the Bible. After several centuries of bitter conflict, the group splintered from Judaism.*
- In Europe, Maimonides (1134-1205) was attacked over his philosophic rationalism and his attempt to integrate Judaism and Greek philosophy. In the initial phase of a conflict that would simmer for centuries, Maimonideans and anti-Maimonideans excommunicated one another.
- The Jewish community of Amsterdam handed out the same punishment in 1656 to Baruch Spinoza for his “wrong opinions” and “evil ways.”*
- During the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Eastern Europe, opponents of Hassidism accused Hassidic rabbis of subverting Judaism, directing their followers away from sober world of Torah study into ecstatic forms of worship and near deification of their leaders.
- Toward the end of the 18th century, the Gaon of Vilna, one of the greatest Jewish scholars of all time, issued a ban on Hassidim – expelling them, denying the authenticity of their adherence to dietary laws, forbidding intermarriage with them, participating in business or even assisting at their burials.
The growth of Reform Judaism in Germany during the 19th century engendered vitriolic reactions from traditionalists and a growing rift between these segments of the community. Nowadays, especially in Israel, a grave fault line runs between the ultra-Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. The ultra-Orthodox have parlayed their electoral strength into a crucial swing vote, which has enabled them to deny legitimacy to Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis in Israel. For example, the state does not recognize marriages or conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis.
Given the divergent approaches to Scripture and different polities among the churches, it follows that various communities handle dissent in different ways. Of course, what constitutes “dissent” is contested as well. The prophetic tradition of Israel bears witness to the right and responsibility to challenge religious authorities when they are not living by the covenant, just as those authorities challenge the people to live in fidelity to God’s call.
It may also be that those who dissent leave or are forced out from the community, which partially explains the proliferation of denominations in the United States. How to keep unity in a community is a very complex challenge.
It is crucial that each church establish clear and just procedures for adjudicating dissent. Due process is a right too often ignored by powerful religious authorities.
Since there is no papacy in Islam, the process of interpreting the law is very democratic, especially in the Sunni world. Legal experts in the Sunni community have always accused the other of being wrong, astray and sinful, but beyond that they have had no power. It was only through the state that a person or a group of people were excluded from the faith, or in some cases the violation was so grave that the Muslim community as whole regarded a person or a group of people as out of the faith. In most cases people would differ in religious matters but would pray together in the same mosque and would not let their differences separate them.
Who is a Muslim in the traditional sense? Most Muslims agree that a person must believe in the unity of one God, the angels, the holy scriptures, all prophets including Jesus as a prophet and Muhammad, the seal of all prophets and the hereafter, along with the pillars of Islam. Those individuals or groups who reject any one of the above are not considered Muslims. In recent Muslim history, when Bahá’u’lláh (for detail see, see: http://bahaullah.com or see: http://www.bahai.org ) declared himself to be a prophet in Iran, his claim was soon rejected and he and his followers were not considered Muslims. Similarly when Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani,( for more details see:http://www.alislam.org/topics/messiah/index.php) of the Subcontinent of India and Pakistan, declared himself to be the prophet in Islam, his claim was rejected and he and his followers known as the Ahmadiyya Community were declared non-Muslims. The same is true of the Nation of Islam, whose members were not accepted as Muslims from its very beginning.
As long as people follow the basic beliefs and tenants of Islam, there may be controversies among them, but it would be hard to label one or the other as non-Muslims. For example, the Wahhabi sect of Islam (for more detail see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wahabi) called the Shi`a non-Muslims, but their call was rejected by the majority. However, the dispute continues between the Wahhabis and the Shi`a.
How do you understand the relationship between religious law and the notion of a divinely revealed text?
A central tenet of Judaism holds that at Mt. Sinai, God revealed the Torah to Moses that included the foundation of Jewish law. According to the book of Leviticus, “These are the laws, the regulations, and the instructions that Yhvh gave between himself and the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai, by the hand of Moses” (26:46, Fox). Clear as this may seem, the extent and legal content of this revelation has remained in dispute for millennia. Heschel describes a maximalist and minimalist school dating back to the first and second centuries C.E.
The maximalist view interpreted this verse to teach “that the Torah was given, with its laws, minutiae, and interpretations through the hand of Moses at Sinai.”* The minimalist school argued that the legal content of the revelation included only 13 principles of interpreting scripture. As one scholar observed, “the maximalist approach is about discovery of religious laws and truths already given; the minimalist school is about construction, or even invention, of religious laws and truths out of materials previously given.” * (The distinction is not unlike that between strict and loose constructionist approaches to interpreting the Constitution.) Heschel himself went so far as to say that, “As a report about revelation the Bible itself is a midrash.” *
The Talmud relates a story that often comes up in discussions about the relationship between divine revelation and Jewish law. The story features two of the greatest sages of the first and second centuries C.E., Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua. (Both of these sages appear in the Haggadah). They disagree about whether an oven is clean, i.e., meets the proper standards of ritual purity. To prove that it is clean, Rabbi Eliezer calls on God to perform one miracle after another — a river changes course, a tree moves from here to there, etc. Rabbi Joshua argues that such miracles have no bearing on a court of law. Finally the voice of God calls out, saying, “Don’t you know that Jewish law always follows the view of Rabbi Eliezer?” To which Rabbi Joshua replies — citing scripture against God! — “It [Torah] is not in heaven (Deuteronomy 30:12). The members of the court side with Rabbi Joshua. The Talmud explains that following the revelation at Sinai we don’t heed the heavenly voice and besides the Torah also says, “After the majority one must incline” (Exodus 33:2). The punch line comes when Elijah the Prophet reports God’s reactions to the proceedings. God laughs and says, “My children have defeated me.”* Human beings are the essential medium through which divine revelation is refracted into Jewish law.
We do not, of course, all agree within our communities, let alone among the various Christian traditions, about how norms derived from Scripture and from the church’s experience over time should be formulated, interpreted and adjudicated. Each ecclesial body works out its own interpretation.
Deriving norms from ancient texts is a complicated process. For instance, as Clarice Martin shows, African Americans over the generations have passionately rejected as contrary to the Gospel the exhortation that slaves should submit to their masters in the “Household Codes” of three New Testament letters (Colossians 3:18—4:1, Ephesians 5:21—6:9 and 1 Peter 2:18—3:7). Yet they have accepted in literalistic fashion the admonition that wives should submit to their husbands.* “How can a Black preacher,” Jacquelyn Grant asks, “preach in a way which advocates St. Paul’s dictum concerning women while ignoring or repudiating his dictum concerning slaves?”* Or more broadly, how can black male preachers and theologians use a “liberated hermeneutic” in speaking about slavery, but a “literalist hermeneutic” with reference to women?* We may pose a similar query in regard to the New Testament’s treatment of Jews. How can preachers and teachers today use a “liberated hermeneutic” to interpret texts about women but a “literalistic hermeneutic” to render texts that depict Jews in negative fashion? How can they continue to preach about the Pharisees as hypocrites or suggest that “the presence of Jesus is the epiphany of this new and different God—not a God of fear and punishment, distant from us and delighting in sacrifices but instead a God who is close.”* It is crucial to situate texts in their historical and literary contexts in conversation with the church’s historical traditions.
New Testament scholar Sandra Schneiders’s work offers intriguing possibilities for thinking about the relation of norms to Scripture. Her notion of “developing historical consciousness” widens the horizon in which to interpret revelatory texts.* She argues: Texts can come to mean something different from what they originally meant or were understood to mean because of their surplus of meaning and the character of effective history. For instance, the Declaration of Independence affirmed that “all men are created equal,” by which its eighteenth-century authors meant white, adult, property-owning males. When it was written, the term “men” was a generic term referring to all human beings. Although the framers of the Declaration did not intend to include women, children and slaves in the phrase, the text permits us to read “men” as human beings. Further, in the expanding effective historical consciousness of the American people, greater awareness has arisen about what humanity entails. We have come to understand “all men are created equal” to mean that all people possess equal rights. The words of the Declaration of Independence have not changed, but the text has insofar as its textual meaning has expanded.*
So too with the biblical text. The meaning of Second Testament texts about Pharisees or “the Jews” or the old covenant or the ordination of women or homosexuality is not restricted to what its first-century authors intended to say. Through our developing historical consciousness—and a deepening grasp of the Gospel we have been painfully slow to live—we Christians now have a clearer vision of the moral unacceptability of such texts, just as we do with texts presuming the legitimacy of slavery and patriarchy.
The Qur’an in Islam is the Divine will of God, but it is not a book of law. It is a book of principles and guidance for humanity from which the rules of religious law are derived. The Qur’an was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and he was guided by God to explain the revelation to the people. His life is considered as the living Qur’an and all his actions, sayings and approvals are in a collection called called the Hadith. Therefore, the Qur’an and Hadith are the two authentic sources of the religious law in Islam.
Shari`ah is the Divine will of God in the Qur’an and the Sunnah (sayings, deeds and approvals) of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) as collected in the Hadith. Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence) consists of Ijma`(consensus of the scholars or of the community on legal issues), Qiyas (analogy) and Ijtihad (a juridical opinion to interpret or to reach a proper decision in legal matters). Fiqh is the human understanding of the divine will and expansion of Shari`ah. Fiqh deals with all aspects of Shari`ah, beliefs, worship, rituals, legal and moral issues. Fiqh interprets the guiding principles of Shari`ah, derives new rules and expands on the existing ones where necessary. In other words, Fiqh is a deep comprehension and interpretation of Shari`ah, and the experts of Islamic jurisprudence ( Faqih, pl. Fuqaha) expand on the comprehension of Shari`ah. Since there is no papacy or priesthood in Islam, jurists’ decisions vary on legal and religious matters.
Many schools of Islamic jurisprudence emerged in the medieval period of Islam. Among them, four Sunn — the Hanafi, the Maliki, Shafi`i and Hanbali — and one Shi`a, the Ja`fari school, spread into different parts of the Muslim world.