In an implicit polemic against Judaism, some strands of Christian theology suggest that Jesus replaced law with love, supplanting countless rules from the Torah with an all-encompassing love as expressed in God’s incarnation. But we do not need to shy away from this critique of Jewish law entirely, even if it is also associated with the central figure of a religious tradition now separate from our own — and even if that perspective has been at times linked to negative sentiments about Judaism and Jews. Those who love rabbinic Judaism and thought, even rabbis like me, can in some moments relate to the critiques of excessive legalism. Sometimes individual aspects of Jewish law can feel outdated, outmoded, or out of touch, even if the principles that undergird them are compelling.
But maybe there is an entirely different way to relate to the realm of law in our tradition. What has drawn me most to Judaism is its emphasis on action – and the remarkable human ability to choose the right action. Our laws serve as the cornerstone of this focus, calling us to pay attention to what we do, why we do it, and what its consequences are. While I do not always love the letter of the law (and as a Reform Jew, I select with careful intention those laws that I choose to live out), I do actually experience a feeling of love and being loved in the approach of our tradition to law, and especially in the ever-evolving course of rabbinic law that emerged alongside the written text of the Torah itself.
As other rabbis before me have asked: Could religious law itself be a form of love?
The tradition that sometimes presents irksome details about inaccessible, ancient concepts also has me constantly captivated and moved by the idea that our people has for millennia sought the right course of action, and mandated it (as it was understood at any given time) not only for the individual but also for its communities. I feel the embrace of this inherited wisdom, and the support of those with far greater insight – a connection to our ancestors, even across geographical and chronological distances. I experience a comforting continuity, especially in this era of social and technological change. I feel a deep relationship with the laws of the Torah to such an extent that it does not seem exaggerated to describe it as an enduring and even mutual love.
But those laws cannot exist alone. Yale Law School Professor Robert Cover famously penned the article “Nomos and Narrative” to describe the inherent connection between laws and the foundational stories of the societies that apply them:
No set of legal institutions or prescriptions exists apart from the narratives that locate it and give it meaning. For every constitution there is an epic, for each decalogue a scripture. Once understood in the context of the narratives that give it meaning, law becomes not merely a system of rules to be observed, but a world in which we live.
A somewhat reductionist but useful expression of the core Jewish narrative goes something like this: ”We were once slaves, now we are free, now we must use that freedom wisely.” In my mind–and heart–it is those laws that so keenly guide us to use our freedom well and live with care. That guidance feels like love.
This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, comes on the heels of the Ten Commandments and begins delving into more detailed prescriptions for our actions. In some cases, its behavioral requirements seem immediately accessible and relevant—“You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20). At other moments, it feels more remote and obscure–“You shall not tolerate a sorceress” (Exodus 22:17).
In some ways, this Torah portion represents an emotional as well as a spiritual and intellectual transition, as it moves from the simple clarity of the Ten Commandments into a more textured legal discourse. It embodies the deepening of a loving relationship in the challenging way common of relationships, as they grow and mature. It is not simple any more, but it is profoundly loving precisely in its specificity and nuance, even with its imperfections.
Fittingly, in this portion the narrative of the text shifts as well. Moses moves into deeper relationship with God, paralleling what we ourselves are doing as we parse challenging and detailed new legal material. Moses ascends the mountain; shrouded in the sacred cloud, he waits for revelation. In receiving the law, in meaningful relationship, Moses connects to the Divine anew. In our own ongoing and ever-renewed explorations of that law, we can, too.
Previously, Josh served as Associate Director of the Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College and Director of Communications for the Coexist Foundation. He was a Founding co-Editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, as well as O.N. Scripture — The Torah, a weekly online Torah commentary featured on the Huffington Post and the Ethical Jam column in the Times of Israel.