The faith and culture of Judaism have been called legalistic by some people, who feel that careful observance of details in rabbinic law detracts from the real spirit of the written Torah. Others believe that the written law itself is made of arbitrary, almost irrelevant rules, or that it was once important but has now been replaced by a better path. To consider these issues and truly understand Judaism as a legal religion, we can ask what the original implications of the Sinai covenant were.
Obedience to the Torah was always meant to involve thankfulness, grace, faith, freedom, repentance, forgiveness, sincerity, and a life that draws very near to God. The law given to Israelites at Sinai contains the ability to turn back to Him and find forgiveness, whatever the situation is. From the earliest preserved Pharisaic texts until today, this recognition of the spirit of the law is still spoken about very often in Jewish life. Sincere service and worship of God are known to be the reason for keeping it wholeheartedly.The belief that Torah laws are to be kept, guarded, and even fenced off so deliberately is not merely self-righteousness if these are the things that God Himself told the Jewish nation He desires from them. Each part matters so much. Some are moral laws, applying to all humans; some are special covenant laws that belong only to the Jews in their personal relationship with Him. But from the moral commandment to love justice to the specific law of making tassels on the corners of their clothing, these things are a means of close connection between Israel and their God. He said that this path is not too distant for anyone to choose.
Fences are made around the Torah to guard it as something valuable and important. This is not the only reason why Orthodox Jews follow rulings that have been made by rabbis and by their communities after what was heard at Sinai. This covenant and law weren’t just given to people as individuals, but to a whole community as a collective sign and witness of their experience of God. The idea is to hold the covenant, keep its laws, and give their testimony, as a unified community through history. The historical fact for centuries has also been one of dispersion through many parts of the world. To hold their identity and their observance together, and for smaller groups to pursue the Torah through their own particular insights into it, an aspect of customs and shared life brings the heart of this law into the living context.
It is definitely wrong to make unnecessary fences or to twist the spirit of the law. Every stringency can draw people away from accessing the shape of the Torah itself, even while they can also help to apply or protect the meaning of the law in important ways. But when care is taken not to confuse the commandments of the Torah with the rulings of any community’s leaders, real freedom and expression of love can come from their rulings and customs. Life is complex, and the Torah is very detailed. The many details of rabbinic law are formed as practical answers to all these everyday questions. They come from conversations between people who have been respected in the community for their grasp of how different parts of the law work together and for the sincerity of their love for the spirit of the Torah as a whole and in its parts. This process is not perfect, but the corrections need to come from within the conversations and lives of the witness community, those who observe the law and have been promised to preserve it by grace. The only groups who take rabbinic authority seriously are those who really believe that the Torah comes from God and that it matters to actually keep it deeply in everyday life, getting closer to obedience over time. Many laws and fences simplify the halachah so that people who do not study Torah constantly are still able to walk in it with peace of mind, without forgetting details or encountering frequent uncertainty about how things fit together. In the same way, when these things are lived out every day and also studied carefully, they seem less extensive; they become intuitive and valuable when you live in them for every hour of many days.
Another reason why rabbinic rulings are followed is the centrality of the early texts of Jewish law for the group that has survived in its observance through history until now, such as the Mishnah and Gemara. It was always important to listen to the judgments of priests and judges about how the law should be applied in the life of the community; this is directly commanded in the written Torah. In our time of history, those judgments and that knowledge have been preserved in this form. The leadership of the late Second Temple period still has to be taken seriously by observant Jews. It is also undeniable that some aspects of the law, even some that were serious and punishable with death, didn’t have their details laid out in the written law; they were known by the community who were living them under Moses’ leadership and whose children began to pass them on. In the end, it is this tradition and knowledge, preserved among the observance of His law and among His promise, that points to the validity of the Torah, prophets, and other scriptures themselves.
We can always choose to be hypocritical and proud, or to learn integrity and be humbly thankful. What matters is that we live in line with God’s commandment in the place that He has given it to us to do so.
Much of the Torah holds laws surrounding the Temple service. These are not a cumbersome burden. They are the gift of the fact that God has chosen to meet so, so closely with people in that place and in that way, if they will be receptive of relationship with Him in specific obedience. Striving to keep His laws is a way of honouring the continued gift of His presence. And the prophetic promise for the future comforts Israel that the Torah will be kept more fully, in spirit and in its details; that God will be met with so closely there in Jerusalem again, and throughout the world. What matters is not what we feel about the laws, but how we can each obey whatever God has actually commanded us as He reveals His heart in the details of life this world.