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The God Squad: How we bend theological rules

Q: I understand why Orthodox Jews in Westhampton Beach, Suffolk County, have fought for an eruv (ritual enclosure) for years, so I don’t blame them for it, and congratulate them for finally “winning” one from village officials. But I can’t help wondering if establishing eruvs is a little like “cheating” on God and his will.

Eruvs allow otherwise Orthodox Jews to do things outside their homes on the Sabbath that the Torah and/or Talmud say they’re forbidden to do. It seems wrong for people who generally live their lives by obeying God to bend the rules when it comes to restrictions they find inconvenient or difficult.

What do you think?

– R., Nassau County

A: Religious laws and traditions evolved (or were revealed) to deal with real life, and real life is messy. Sometimes the positive intent of a law is undermined by the law itself. This presents two options. The first is to honestly and directly change the law to accommodate changing historical conditions and alleviate the unintended onerous consequences of the law. This is the option taken by liberal denominations of all faiths.

As a Reform Jew, I prefer this option, although it has immense theological problems. There’s the “slippery slope” argument. Once you change one law, why not change them all? There’s also the problem of revelation. If God revealed the laws, what gives us the right to change anything? These are the best arguments used by orthodox/fundamentalist religious leaders of all faiths to resist change. The problem with “change nothing” arguments is that even orthodoxy changes the laws that simply can’t be observed without causing great pain to the followers of a religion.

Judaism has many examples of orthodox changes that are presented as changing nothing, but actually change everything. Your eruv question is one of these. The Bible prohibits working on the Sabbath, which rabbinic commentators elaborate as taking anything from the private into the public domain. But this strict prohibition made it difficult or impossible for Jews to lock their homes and carry keys to the synagogue for Sabbath prayers or wheel their small children in strollers. The solution was a loophole by which certain wires or pipes that encircled a community were Jews lived were marked with tags (lechis) that made everything inside the marked area suddenly private, even though this is clearly a legal fiction. It was a change in the law without admitting that it was a change.

This is not just a Jewish phenomenon. In Catholicism, for example, the laws forbidding divorce and remarriage have caused many Catholics great pain because they feel excluded from being in communion with the Church they love.

So without admitting to a change, the Catholic Church, particularly in America, has liberalized the annulment process by which a previous failed marriage is declared never to have been a true marriage in the first place, which then allows a Catholic person to remarry in the Church.

Annulments are not easy or pro forma acts because the Church, rightly in my view, wants to preserve its spiritually powerful defense of marriage and the possibility that even serious problems in a first marriage can be worked out with patience, wisdom and love. Annulments are not cheating any more than an eruv is cheating. They’re legal fictions created to help people who want to stay in the faith, not just trash it in order to do whatever they want.

The same dynamic is at work in secular life as societal laws are altered, sometimes with very thin reasons, to serve a higher and evolving good. These changes are never easy, nor should they be, and they must only be made by established legal authorities, but they are necessary for us to hear what the Lord demands of us – not just in ages past, but here and now where we’re trying our best to live honorable and pious lives.