Judaism's "Picayune Rules"

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This week, we begin reading the third book of Torah, Yayikra, or Leviticus. 

One of the frequent criticisms of Judaism by non-Jews, and of Orthodox Judaism by non-Orthodox Jews, is that Judaism (or Orthodox Judaism, or “traditional Judaism”) is all about innumerable, picayune rules.  

The argument is that the focusing on endless rules -- one is supposed to study them all one’s life -- stifles spirituality and love.  

I am not an Orthodox Jew, much less an Orthodox rabbi.  I grew up in the Reform movement.  I attended a trans-denominational rabbinical school which had an Orthodox dean but mostly non-Orthodox rabbis and some academics as teachers.  In my own life, I don’t always follow halachah (Jewish law) especially in many of its detailed ritual aspects, but I do appreciate its underlying philosophy.  And contrary to what you may have heard, that philosophy is based on love. 

Judaism requires us to love G-d, love our neighbor, and love the stranger.  But to feel love is one thing.  Much more importantly, we are to show love.  

How so? One very important way is to try to ensure justice. 

This week’s Torah portion provides one of innumerable examples of this.  Leviticus Chapter 5 verse 23 requires that a thief return anything that he or she has stolen.  This seems like a very simple and straightforward rule requiring no amplification and no complex set of subrules or interpretation.  

But let’s test that premise by taking it out of Scripture and applying it in the real world.  If a stolen object can be returned without difficulty, fine.  But consider these potential circumstances:

·      What if it is impossible to return the stolen object because it has been sold or lost?

·      What if the stolen item was unique, or has “sentimental” but not monetary value?  How is the loss to be compensated? 

·      What if it has been altered and can’t be returned in its former condition?

·      What if it hasn’t been altered, but it has been incorporated into another object, such as a stolen roof beam being built into the thief’s house?  What if the owner insists that the thief demolish the house and return the beam?  Can he require that, or is monetary value sufficient?  

·      What if the owner is unaware that the item is missing, and it is possible to return it without his learning of the theft, thus protecting the thief from discovery.  Is this permitted?

·      What if the thief doesn’t know the identity of the object’s owner, such as if the thief commissioned the theft or knowingly received stolen property? 

·      What if several people claim ownership?  How is the true owner to be determined?  What happens if it can’t? 

·      What if the object can’t be returned without the owner’s knowledge, but it can be returned anonymously, such as being mailed with no return address.  Is this permitted?  

·      If the owner is aware of the theft, or becomes aware of it upon the item’s return, and the owner suffers anguish, must the thief ask forgiveness?  Can the thief express regret and ask forgiveness anonymously, such as by unsigned letter? 

·      What if the stolen item’s owner has died?  How much effort must the thief make to find the owner’s heirs?  

·      What if the object stolen was of less value than the cost that the thief would incur to return it? 

In deciding these rules, should we consider whether “strict justice” will encourage or deter thieves from return of stolen items and repentance?  How important, if at all, is the dignity of the thief?  How important is punishment? 

These are, of course, only some of the practical circumstances and considerations that might be encountered in applying the seemingly “simple and straightforward” obligation of returning a stolen object.  And so it is with almost every commandment, be it an affirmative obligation or a prohibition.  Yet when justice is the objective, great effort must be made to address likely and even unlikely circumstances.

Now you might say, “perhaps this is true of matters pertaining to interpersonal relations, but it doesn’t explain the detail of ritual requirements.”  But I would answer that subrules and interpretation are likewise required if the goal is to observe the letter and spirit of the obligation, considered to be Divinely imposed.  

To quote one of our generation’s greatest Jewish ethicists, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, “justice, to become a reality in people's lives, could not be left as a pious hope but must rather be translated into concrete norms. By presenting specific cases, both the biblical and rabbinic traditions made the demands of justice clear and binding.” To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Jewish Ethics, 116.   

We’re likely all familiar with the phrase “the devil is in the details.”  But for Judaism, whether we’re speaking of interpersonal relationships or rituals, the attempt to meet our obligations to each other and to G-d is often necessarily expressed in the details.  And not just our obligations, but the vibrancy of our spiritual and communal lives as well. 

We might examine our own behavior, and that of our family and friends, and consider, “When one has acted improperly, how does one know the right thing to do?”   

Jewish law provides answers developed and refined over several thousand years.  Whether we regard halachah as binding or as a resource, let’s endeavor to learn and appreciate it as an invaluable guide to expressing love and doing justice. 

Shabbat shalom.



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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3