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Letter vs. Spirit

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

God sure gave us a lot of rules. And they are good rules. I don’t understand the purpose of all of them. In fact, I’d have to say I don’t understand the purpose of most of them. But that makes no matter.

Some are pretty straightforward…like don’t murder. Sure, one can conjure up all sorts of scenarios where murder might be an OK option. But when it comes right down to it — murder is wrong. Note that I am not talking about killing. Killing is probably wrong in most circumstances but IS allowable in a select few. And the gap between murder and killing is wide. Here’s another one: do not steal. What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours. Of course, things get a little murky when we deal with intangible property such as idea. Come to think of it, not too many of the laws are as straightforward as one might suppose. And I guess that’s a good thing because people and life’s circumstances are rarely straightforward. And if the commandments are to be applicable in every generation, they ought to reflect the complexitites of the human experience.

So back to the meaning or intent behind the mitzvot. Traditional Judaism reasons that it is not up to us to understand God’s Laws but to follow them. Any understanding we have is merely an added benefit as are the warm, fuzzy feelings we get when doing good.

So far, so good.

Mah kasheh l’Frume Sarah?
[When looking at a pasuk, we often ask ma kasheh l’Rashi in order to uncover what difficulty Rashi might have had with a word, a turn of phrase, or even an entire verse.] What’s bugging Frume Sarah?

If God has given a rule, it was meant to be followed. Though He has imbued us with brilliant creativity and knowledge, I do not believe God intended said gifts to be used in order to circumvent those laws. At least not without good reason.

Example #1
Kosher-for-Passover food
Once-upon-a-time, Passover meant a week (or 8 days depending on your tradition) of meals built around raw, unprocessed, fresh choices such as meat, fruit, and vegetables. One of the few things I learned in economics was that if there is a desire for something, that need will be met. (Something about what the market will bear…) In today’s processed, hydrogenated, prepackaged world, you can bet that the kosher-for-passover industry is meeting the needs of Jews everywhere. From OUP muffins (OUP is the official mark for food certified to be kosher under the auspices of the Orthodox Union) to OUP fruit rolls, Passover just ain’t what it used to be. In fact, Passover almost seems like any other week…

Example #2
Shabbat-compliant Espresso Machine
Thirty-nine separate categories of work are prohibitted on the Sabbath. Electicity is one of them. So you can’t flip on your Braun coffee-maker. Engaging in commercial acts is also out so no Starbucks run on the way to shul. Have no fear. Some shrewd (and now wealthy) entrepreneur has created an automated coffee-maker that manages to work without violating any of the 39 categories of work.

What bothers me is that in both cases the letter of the law is strictly observed. But a Judaism lived only in accordance with the letter of the law but without considering the spirit of the law is a soulless Judaism.

Drastically altering our eating behaviours for one week a year draws us closer to understanding the plight of our people as they stood at the crossroads between enslavement and liberation. Setting boundaries for our actions on Shabbat is the only way to distinguish between time that is ordinary and time that is sacred. Dodging the law merely because we can doesn’t mean that we should.

And yet…

Sometimes God’s commandments, though intended for good, can have crushing effects. In a thoughtful piece in this past weekend’s New York Times, authors Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt explore the dilemma of unintended consequences. Using the agricultural sabbatical year as one of three very interesting examples, Dubner and Levitt essentially remind us of that old adage about the road and its pavement.

I point out this article for two reasons. First, it raises some interesting points about cause-and-effect. Second reason — I am pretty certain that many, if not most, Reform Jews are completely unfamiliar with the laws concerning the sabbatical year known as shmitta. One of the failings of our movement is that there is a lack of knowledge concerning much of Jewish Law and practices. While the laws of shmitta do not apply to fields outside the land of Israel, we are not absolved of learning about them and perhaps even trying to understand their relevance in contemporary times.

So I direct you to Orthomom who has penned (typed?) a terrific post on this very topic. You’ll be glad that you did.

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