The Law Evolves

(Dr. Laura, are you listening?)


"Dear Dr. Laura," reads a bit of internet humor currently circulating through religion-based lists, "thank you for teaching me that homosexuality is eternally sinful according to the Bible. Now I have a few other questions: I recently built a sacrificial altar in my backyard. The Bible says that God savors the odor of burnt offerings, but my neighbors don't. How shall I proceed? Also I'd like to purchase a slave from a nearby foreign nation, as the Bible suggests. A friend of mine says that this law is applicable to Mexicans, but not Canadians. What's your opinion? I'm also interested in selling my daughter for cash, where might I find a buyer? ..."

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The author's obvious point is that contemporary Jews of all denominations do not read the Bible as a document frozen in time. Jewish theology believes that the Torah reveals itself in harmony with the changing social circumstances of the Jewish people. We Jews no longer keep slaves, sell our daughters, stone rebellious children, engage in animal sacrifice, or in general live as did our ancestors in ancient Israel. It is the tradition of Jews to interpret Torah to provide moral guidance for the world in which we live now, not one of the distant past. This tradition keeps Judaism a vibrant evolving religious system rather than a fossilized relict.

Our survival as a people is contingent not only on preserving Torah but also on interpreting it. But how did we Jews ever find the chutzpah to interpret God's revealed word? This week's portion provides us with that presumptuous methodology. It turns out that Moses himself taught us this in the Torah itself, in the book of Deuteronomy.

Deuteronomy's tale opens 40 years after the momentous events of the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai. Moses stands just beyond the Jordan and recounts the sacred history of the Hebrew people to a generation born in the desert. He tells them how their structure of government emerged, the course of their journeys from Egypt, their triumphs and failures. He explains the shift in generations and prepares them for his successor, Joshua. Moses encourages their resolution for the battle ahead. So far, so good.

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