Some time ago one of my blog posts was reprinted by the blog Frum Satire and one of the commenters asked me whether I felt bound by God’s commandments. The full answer to his question is too long to put in a comment, so I simply said that I do, and he called me a phony.
I can understand why he would think such a thing. If I act the way I act, and not the way he thinks people who feel bound by God’s commandments should act, then, to his point of view, I must not be sincere in what I say.
The crux of the matter is that he and I disagree regarding what God’s commandments are.
According to some Orthodox Jews, and most likely this commenter, God’s commandments include all the commandments in the 5 books of Moses, the Prophets, and the Writings, known as the Tanakh or the Written Law, as well as what is written in the Talmud, or the Oral Law. He would probably also include whatever interpretation of halacha is followed in his community.
So let’s start with halacha. It’s pretty clear that current interpretations of halacha were written by fallible men (I use the term “men” rather than “people” on purpose, since only men can become rabbis in the Orthodox world, and opinions on halacha are not taken seriously if they are not endorsed by one or more “important” rabbis).
For instance, I don’t think anyone would argue that God issued a specific commandment about whether it’s okay to send a text on Shabbat. Indeed, some rabbis argue it’s okay, since using electricity is okay, and other rabbis say it’s not okay, since using electricity on Shabbat is forbidden.
Maybe some of the men who write these opinions are inspired by God, but they disagree with one another, and there is no way to know who is right. None of them claim that God directly spoke to them and proclaimed the answer. They are simply using their own knowledge and reasoning, which may be influenced by their biases and beliefs. Perhaps, like the house of Hillel and the house of Shammai, they are both right, and therefore we can follow either one and still be following God’s commandments.
The same can be said of the Talmud. Although some claim the Talmud was given to Moses at Sinai, clearly it contains conflicting arguments written by different men over a period of time. Again, the writers do not claim to be prophets. They are again just using their best judgment based on their knowledge and beliefs.
I see no reason to say the discussion of, and revisions to, our understanding of what God wants should stop just because someone took the time to write down the existing Oral Law several hundred years ago. It’s a great jumping-off place for discussion, but I don’t think it is a definitive compilation of God’s commandments.
The only documents we have that contain what claim to be direct quotes from God are compiled in the Tanakh. Clearly, the prophets and writings come from several different people.
Even in the sefer Torah, the five books of Moses, ample evidence exists that it was written by several different people, with different agendas. There are even conflicting stories in it, starting with the two creation stories in Genesis.
How, then, do we know what God’s commandments are? Are they the 613 commandments in the sefer Torah? Are they just the commandments contained in what are known as the Ten Utterances (or, to the Christians, the Ten Commandments)? The sefer Torah contains two versions of that, as well.
None of us can know for sure what God’s commandments really are. Even if we agree they are the 613 commandments in the sefer Torah, those commandments have been interpreted many different ways over the years.
I can certainly understand how some people feel sure that the practices in their community are correct practices to follow. But I find it hard to understand how they can believe their way is the only correct way, when there are so many differences of opinion in our texts and tradition.
So, ultimately, I do feel bound by God’s commandments, to the extent that I can determine what those commandments are. And I am grateful there is a wealth of knowledge to draw on to help me determine what those commandments really mean. However, I do not necessarily feel bound by other people’s interpretations of those commandments. In the end, we all need to come to our own conclusions about what it is that we believe God really wants of us. And what God wants from you may be different than what God wants from me.