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Shavuot: the long arm of Jewish law

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ENCINO, Calif., May 11 (JTA) — "You know, Rabbi Hal, there’s no contract that can’t be broken," my son Danny said to the teacher of his sixth-grade Judaic studies class. There are advantages to being the son of a lawyer. Danny, 12, knows the difference between slander and libel. He knows, under the California Civil Code, that gift certificates, with few exceptions, cannot expire. And he knows, as he remarked to Rabbi Hal Greenwald, that no contract is airtight, including one stipulating expectations for his class at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, Calif. But as a Jew, Danny also understands, like the manufacturers of Hebrew National hot dogs, that he must "answer to a higher authority." And while he may contemplate skipping an assignment or chitchatting during class, he understands, as Numbers 30:3 tells him, that he cannot weasel out of his vows. Of course, Danny had no choice about signing the class contract. He also had no choice about agreeing to Numbers 30:3 and the Torah’s other laws. For according to one interpetation, God held Mount Sinai over the heads of the Israelites, threatening to drop the mountain on them if they did not accept the Torah. "You were there," I tell Danny. "I was?" "We all were." The rabbis tell us that every Jew who would ever be born was present 3,315 years ago, on the sixth day of the month of Sivan, when God, amidst thunder, lightning and the sound of the shofar, gave Moses the Ten Commandments as well as, many believe, the entire written and oral Torah. This was an extraordinary and revolutionary event, marking the first time in history that a civilization was given a code of law that included ethical obligations. No longer could people rip off a limb of a living animal. No longer could farmers harvest every last corner of their fields. No longer could people stand idly by when a human life was in danger. Of course, people slip up. Moses did, the minute he descended from Mount Sinai and spotted the golden calf. Enraged, he threw down the Ten Commandments and burned and pulverized the idol, demanding, "Whoever is for the Lord, come here" (Exodus 32:26). He then ordered the sons of Levi to "put sword on thigh, go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay brother, neighbor and kin" (Exodus 32:27). Three thousand Israelites were killed that day, in direct contradiction to the sixth commandment, "You shall not murder." "Maybe those killings were grandfathered in," my husband, Larry, suggests. "Maybe God wants us to know that people aren’t perfect," says Danny, who has indulged in his share of fraternal fighting. But laws aren’t perfect either. The sixth commandment notwithstanding, many biblical laws, to many who are not strict traditionalists, appear unjust, unethical, irrelevant, outdated or plain dumb. Who would, for example, "present a burnt offering of pleasing odor to the Lord: two bulls of the herd, one ram, seven yearling lambs" on Shavuot? (Numbers 28:27) Or "not suffer a witch to live"? (Exodus 22:17) Or, my personal favorite, believe that "he who curses his father or mother shall surely be put to death"? (Exodus 21:17) Then why do we have laws? "So we don’t get killed," says Jeremy, 13. "So we can break them," says Danny. "Laws? Who wants laws?" asks Gabe, 16, bewildered by the fact that not everyone is an adolescent anarchist. We Jews certainly want laws. For at the base of Mount Sinai, without even asking God if we could preview our legal and moral future, we exclaimed, "We will do and we will hear," tantamount to signing the contract without even reading it. We should have added, "But we will continually analyze and argue, down to whether we should light the Chanukah candles from right to left or left to right." And that’s why we have literally thousands of volumes of Torah interpretations and reinterpretations, starting with the Oral Law, which was compiled, by the fifth century C.E., into the Talmud. We also have supposedly definitive codes of Jewish law, including Maimonides’ Mishnah Torah and Joseph Caro’s Shulchan Aruch. Additionally, we have "Midrashim," which are stories or explanations that expand on Biblical passages. And rabbis have created a vast collection of responsa, or opinions, that seek to explain and apply specific laws of the Torah. Laws continue to evolve even today, as rabbis of all denominations grapple with ancient principles of Torah in light of modern quandaries, technology and enlightened sensibilities. They ponder such questions as, Is cloning permissible? How about surrogate motherhood? Can a Jew be a conscientious objector? Engage in a same-sex marriage? Download music off the Internet? But beyond all the legal wrangling, beyond the complex and contradictory commentaries, the Torah gives us a solid, simple and all-encompassing code of ethics. It commands us to live righteously, to sanctify life, to become better human beings and to create a better world. The rabbis believed that the sixth of Sivan is a day as important as the day of creation itself, for without Torah, there is no life. And so, on the holiday of Shavuot, which begins this year at sundown on June 5, we stand symbolically at Mount Sinai and reaffirm our commitment to Torah. And also, in Danny’s case, his commitment to his sixth-grade Judaic studies class contract.Jane Ulman is a freelance writer in Encino, Calif. She is the mother of four sons.

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