Rabbinic Laws and the Perfection of the Torah

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

R. Hillel Goldberg, in his column in the Intermountain Jewish News explores the implications of rabbinic ordinances. He first starts by defending the concept of the perfection of the Torah:

Why should we not add to or subtract from (i.e., change) the Torah? Because, if G-d is perfect, then the “entire word” of G-d is perfect. It needs no improvement and is not subject to improvement.

If the Torah is imperfect, then its author, G-d, is imperfect; or, G-d is not the author of the Torah. Neither possibility is compelling. If G-d is imperfect, what is the value of G-d? Why bother? An imperfect G-d is just another form of an idol.

If G-d is not the author of the Torah, what is the value of the Torah?

One could argue that, even imperfect, the Torah is a great repository of wisdom; but if so, the same can be said for Shakespeare and the scriptures of many religions. If imperfect, the Torah has no unique claim on us.

Classic medieval scholastics. Thankfully, he does not revert to the circular argument that the Torah is perfect because it says in Tehillim (19:18) that it is.

But, if the Torah is perfect, of what use are rabbinic ordinances? Do they not imply that the Torah is imperfect and therefore needed to be fixed?

The real issue raised by the perfection of the Torah is not that G-d or the Torah is imperfect (G-d forbid, I might circularly say), but this: If the Torah is perfect and cannot be improved upon, on what basis do we sanction “fences,” “rabbinic laws” and “stringencies” (chumrot), not found in the Torah?…

The first example, milk and meat, is an illustration of a “fence.” A fence is not an addition to the Torah; it is designed to keep one distant from a prohibition…

A fence is intuitive. If am a drug addict in recovery, I will do more than not use drugs, I will not own them. If I am on the verge of bankruptcy due to excessive credit card use, I will not just cut down on the credit card, I will often leave it at home, or will not own one altogether. If I need to study for finals but am addicted to television, I will not just turn off the TV. I will study in a room without a TV.

The Torah keeps us away from prohibitions with “fences,” restrictions that do not render the Torah imperfect; their point is not philosophical. Their point is psychological: how to help the human being control himself.

The second example, Purim, illustrates the power of ancient rabbinic legislation. Purim, at its base, is not an observance of the Torah, but the commemoration of a great event. Its basis is not G-d’s revelation (the Torah), but G-d’s intervention in history, however cloaked.

At a certain point in history, rabbis had the power to legislate for the entire Jewish people. Now, rabbis, if they are scholars and pietists of international repute, retain the power of legislation, though less extensively. Why that is so, is a separate topic. The philosophical point remains the same: Legislation to commemorate an event does not add to or subtract from the Torah. Moses did not observe Purim; Moses’ understanding of the Torah was nonetheless perfect.

The third example, extra pools for a mikveh, illustrates the role of technology in the Torah. A mikveh with one pool of rainwater is a perfect reflection of the Torah law. One pool, however, quickly gets dirty. It cannot simply be emptied on the hope that it will rain that night. It doesn’t rain every night but a mikveh needs to be used every night. A community with a dirty mikveh cannot simply wait until it rains for its dirty water to be replaced. The issue here is technological: How may dirty mikveh water be replaced, given the Torah law that mikveh water must be “at the hands of Heaven” (flowing to a mikveh without human intervention)?

This technological challenge is not easy. Different authorities have devised different solutions. All require an additional pool of rainwater. The configuration of some of these pools reflects the opinion of the majority of the authorities. Typically, Jewish law follows the majority, but if the minority opinion is articulated by a renowned authority, many will try to follow it, too. This might require two extra mikveh pools, not one.

This is an example of a stringency. It does not add to the Torah; it reflects a different view of how to resolve a technological challenge.

Fences, rabbinic legislation and stringencies do not add to the Torah. To add to the Torah would be to keep the Sabbath two days a week, and to subtract from the Torah would be to keep the Sabbath once every other week. However, not to sleep on Shabbos — a rare level of piety — is not to add to the Torah. It is to maximize the gift of Shabbos, consciously to take advantage of every moment of its holiness.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter

The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter