So obviously laws like killing people for working on the Sabbath are not followed. They don't follow any of the other crazy killing laws such as being allowed to kill your kid for acting out (Deut 21:18-21). Sacrifices are no longer made. I don't know if Jews follow other random laws like not wearing different kinds of clothing material or not planting two types of vegetables together. But they definitely still follow kosher laws. What or who makes some laws more important than others to follow and why? It seems arbitrary the way they decide it.
Also, it often feels like they add on to laws. Like with the Kosher law they take it a step further and say you can't eat chicken with milk. I thought the whole point of that law was so that you don't risk eating the child calf and the mother's milk together, but obviously its impossible if its milk and chicken. It obviously can get a lot deeper than that with respect to separating everything to keep a kosher kitchen. It seems like a lot of other stuff concerning law is added on in their other book, the Talmud. I don't recall the Tanakh saying men need to wear yamakas all the time. Doesn't this go against the commandment in the Tanakh to not add on to the laws? Why is this menial law-following taken so seriously but the Orthodox and conservative branches in the first place?
Let me take a run at this one too, by reposting this, from about five years ago, on the same subject:
|Not incidentally, nowhere in the OT does it say, "Don't eat pork." The kosher laws are derived indirectly from the Torah, for the most part, and seem to be primarily about minimizing the shedding and consumption of blood, and of remaining humbly aware that the meat on one's plate required the death of another creature. They are neither as arbitrary nor as random as they might appear at first glance.
Is there any reason to believe that the rules (the Law) derived from the Torah (the Old Testament) are not arbitrary?
First, a few details: the Torah is the first five books of the Bible, not the entire Old Testament. The Law is sometimes used as a synonym for the Torah, though the word actually translates as "Teaching," not "Law."
The Law I would guess that you're referring to would be Jewish Law, or Halakhah in Hebrew, which translates literally as "Walk," as in "Path." Those laws are derived from the Torah by the consensus of sages and rabbis in the Talmud, though some are matters of oral tradition that were never written until modern times.
An enormous proportion of the laws are truly obsolete; they have to do with ritual and procedure in the Temple, and of course there is no Temple and hasn't been since 70 CE. The rabbis continued to debate and refine those laws long after the fact anyway, more as a devotional procedure than anything else; besides, much of Jewish liturgy, even today, derives from rites in the Temple. The times of prayer, for instance--shaharit, mincha and maariv, or morning, afternoon and evening--are based on the times of sacrifices in the Temple.
Virtually all of the "purity" laws that declare things or people "clean" or "unclean" are laws of this type, e.g., the laws that declare a person "unclean" after contact with the dead. These laws have nothing to do with sin or a person being guilty of anything in any sense; they have to do with some sort of ritual unsuitability for entering the Temple. The very word "unclean" is an unfortunate translation; the Hebrew word is tamei, and there is no cognate for it in any language I know. It carries no negative connotation whatever in Hebrew.
It would make no sense to associate this word with any kind of guilt or sin; for instance, a man was tamei after a seminal emission (including during intercourse), and a woman was tamei during her menses. These are normal conditions; for a woman every month, and all men, even the High Priest, were expected to father children and have families. Everyone was expected to prepare and bury their dead, and so on. Everyone was tamei at one time or another. Furthermore, since becoming ritually pure again generally required a rite of "cleansing" at the Temple, everyone is tamei today, with no way to become un-tamei.
It had nothing to do with hygiene, either; excrement was not tamei, nor did contact with it render one tamei, though it is clearly regarded as unhygienic and "dirty" in the modern sense.
There are some odd laws here; the skin disease called "leprosy" rendered one tamei, but if the whiteness covered the entire body, one was no longer tamei. (This disease apparently no longer exists; whatever it was, it certainly wasn't Hansen's disease, which is what we call "leprosy" today.) There is clearly something going on here that we no longer understand.
As for the rest of the laws, most are just commonsense corollaries of commandments in the Torah that most would agree with anyway. Laws about property, the payment of wages, boundaries between tracts of land, and so on.
As to the laws of kashrut, or the kosher laws; they are not arbitrary either. The Jewish ideal is vegetarianism, and many Jews are vegetarians. This is deduced from the reference in the Torah that "if you have a craving for meat..." implying that it ought to be resisted if possible, but if not, certain procedures are required. These all seem to be concerned with minimizing pain and the shedding of blood as far as possible, as I was quoted above.
First, only certain animals may be eaten. These are all ruminants, that is, plant-eaters. No animal that kills other creatures to live is permitted. This is clearest in the case of birds; the forbidden birds are actually specified, and they are all raptors--hawks, owls, and the like. Eating an animal that is a predator would mean that one is benefiting from and partaking of the killing done by the creature one is eating; and so it is forbidden. Pigs have fangs, like dogs; they are naturally omnivores, both plant- and meat-eaters, and in the wild they do indeed eat both plants and small animals.
Scavengers are also forbidden; thus, no vultures or shellfish. Though they may not kill (crabs and lobsters do, thus the claws), they still eat dead flesh.
Once a permitted animal is chosen, it must be killed in a particular way; not for ritual purposes, but to minimize the creature's pain. The prescribed method has always been the same: one swift, deep stroke across the throat with a literally razor-sharp knife. If you have ever cut yourself with an extremely sharp blade, you know that there is often no pain; one notices the blood, and only then finds the cut. The animal is instantly rendered unconscious, since one of the arteries cut is the one supplying blood to the brain.
Concern and respect for the animal's "feelings," as it were, is made clear in the Torah; a kid or calf is not to be slaughtered in the presence of its mother. There can be no other interpretation of this law.
The animal is then allowed to bleed out. This is essential, since the consumption of blood of any kind is absolutely forbidden; the carcass must be totally drained. This is why the animal may not be killed, for instance, by shooting it in the head; that might be more painless (though that is doubtful), but it stops the heart instantly. The heart must keep beating till all the blood is pumped out. All blood must be poured out on the ground and covered with earth in respect.
After inspection to make sure the animal is free of disease (a complex procedure that is very old, but even today is considered scientifically thorough) and butchering, the meat is then packed in salt to draw out all moisture, especially the blood. The meat is now kosher and fit to eat.
That is not all; meat may not be served at the same meal as a milk product, and Jews who "keep kosher" will almost always have two sets of dishes and cookware to make sure that meat and milk dishes are kept entirely separate. This law comes from the admonition, repeated three times in the Torah, that "You shall not cook a kid in its mother's milk; it is an abomination." No explicit reason is given for this, but it might be inferred that, since milk is a substance meant to nourish new life, it is inappropriate and wrong to mix it with meat, which requires a death. Life and death are to be kept separate, just as one was not to enter the Temple after being in contact with the dead.
All kosher fish (those with both fins and scales), all eggs, and all plant products are considered "pareve," that is, neither meat nor milk, and may be cooked and served with both.
There is, of course, much more; but these are the basics. They reflect a time when people were much more aware of where their food came from and were much closer to its sources. They also reflect a certain awareness of one's responsibilities toward and respect for other creatures, even the creatures one kills and eats, and a certain humility associated with that practice. One is never permitted to forget that one's meat meal required a death, and one is required to take that fact seriously.
We are, most of us, rather far from that kind of awareness and humility today. Chicken McNuggets and hamburger patties do not grow on bushes; they were once part of living beings that walked and ate and breathed and had, or were, "children" themselves.
There are some laws that seem brutal and unreasonable given in the Torah, like the various offenses that carry the death penalty; cursing one's parents, desecrating the. Sabbath, and so on. The derivations in Halakhah of those laws are interesting; the sages loaded them down with so many layers of conditions, qualifications, exceptions, and other requirements that they were virtually never imposed.
For instance: Suppose a man were charged with cutting down a tree on the Sabbath, an unambiguous act that was supposed to be punished by stoning. Here are the conditions that must be met before that penalty was imposed:
There must be at least two witnesses, neither of whom were personally acquainted with the man, to ensure that there were no maliciously false charges at work. The man must have been warned before the fact, in precise language from the Torah, that what he was about to do was a violation of the law, including a specific warning about the consequences of doing it in graphic terms. The man must then have specifically announced his intention, not just to cut down the tree, but to violate that specific law, again using the precise words from the Torah, and he must include a description of the penalty he would be made to suffer. He must then immediately carry out the act, swinging the ax or whatever. If he stops after his statement to do anything--take a drink of water, wipe his brow, or pick up the ax before swinging it--all bets are off and the case is thrown out of court.
And what if all these conditions are fulfilled? It will come as no surprise that the man would then be declared insane and not responsible for his actions--a reasonable conclusion, considering.
There were other conditions. Even in a case of murder--virtually the only kind of case where a death sentence was ever actually imposed--if the entire assembly voted unanimously to convict, the case was thrown out; some kind of prejudice against the defendant was assumed. If anyone in the assembly was absent for any portion of the trial, the case was thrown out. If no one at all spoke in the man's defense, the case was thrown out.
And so on. The Talmud records that a court that imposed the death penalty more than once in ten years was called a "bloody-handed court."--and as far as we know, none ever was.
Some laws, notably the prohibition against "lying with a man as with a woman," probably did not then have the same significance that we give them today--in that case, a prohibition against homosexuality. The Torah does not seem to be aware, so to speak, of homosexuality as a sexual orientation or a lifestyle choice as we are today; there is no indication of that anywhere. The reference most probably was referring to homosexual anal rape as a kind of formal degradation and humiliation of an enemy after defeating him, in war or perhaps in personal combat. Certainly there doesn't seem to have ever been a prosecution under that statute.
There are a few--a very few--laws in the Torah that make no sense at all to us today, and which even seem to have puzzled the sages of old. Most famous is the very peculiar business of the "Red Heifer," which involved making a potion to be given to a woman suspected of adultery. If guilty, she was supposed to suffer pain and swelling of various kinds; if innocent, nothing would happen. We have no idea how this was supposed to work or if it ever did, or even if it was ever actually done. It was proposed very long ago that it was never intended as anything more than a mere sham, intended to inevitably acquit the woman and put the doubts of the suspicious husband to rest with a ritual show. Of course, it's also possible that the effects could have been produced psychosomatically in a woman conscious of guilt. We have no way of knowing today.
In any case; the laws of the Torah, and the laws of Halakhah derived from them, are virtually never purely arbitrary, though some reflect a world, and a world-view, very different from our own. After 3,000 years or so, it would be very surprising indeed if they all seemed familiar and sensible today.
They weren't written just because God, or the rabbis, got bored one day and decided to make up some fraternity-initiation hoops for people to jump through. They are all there for a reason, though sometimes we're not entirely clear about what that reason may have been.
It isn't well understood by non-Jews that the Hebrew Bible, or even the Torah, does not have the same place among Jews as the Christian Bible does among many Christians; that is to say, it is not the absolute, ultimate, final authority. That place goes to the tradition, which is the consensus of the wisest of our people -- also identified by consensus -- over thousands of years. The Talmud consists almost entirely of debates and arguments among the Wise on various ethical questions and how various passages in the Torah ought to be interpreted and/or applied.
Jews simply do not believe, and never have, that human reason and moral sensibility ought to be abandoned in favor of religious dogmatism or a sacred text. We worship God, not a book.
One more note; the wearing of the yarmulke (the Yiddish term for a skullcap), or kippah (a Hebrew term which is becoming more common), is not a "law." It is a tradition, one which dates from the Middle Ages. Legend has it that it came, as many Jewish practices do, from an effort to solve a problem: Some king, somewhere or other, decreed that everyone must remove his hat in his presence on pain of death. The problem; at that time and place, adult male Jews wore hats ALL the time, to signify respect and reverence for God. Solution? Wear a little hat UNDER your real hat. That way, one could remove one's hat in the presence of the King and thus avoid execution, and one could still retain a small cap to signify reverence for God. Problem solved. (Many Orthodox Jews still do this; if you look at the backs of the wide-brimmed black hats that they wear, you will see a yarmulke peeking out.)
Tradition is not exactly an "important part" of Judaism; in a real sense, tradition IS Judaism. We have no formal dogma or "doctrines." We have no teachings about the nature of God, or of an Afterlife, or even whether or not there is one. What we have is a tradition -- of the stories of our ancestors, whether or not they are literal history; of an overwhelming concern for ethical behavior; of rational debate and critical thinking; of concern for truth and a reverence for learning in EVERY field; and of a common history and destiny.
Tevye wasn't kidding. "Tradition!" And the most important thing about tradition is that it is carried on, from generation to generation -- l'dor vador, in Hebrew -- and that it changes in every generation. It is a living thing, not a dead and unchanging one. That applies to Jewish law, too.