Tuesday, August 20, 2019
Breaking the Law
It is important to remember that the Torah that Jesus, the Pharisees, and ordinary Jewish people followed was not a legal code. We often translate that word, "Torah," as "Law," such as when we recite "the Summary of the Law" in the Book of Common Prayer, in which Jesus says that loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves are the greatest commandments, on which hang all the Law and the Prophets. Yet the word, "Torah," is more accurately translated as "teaching," "instruction," or "guidance." The longstanding practice of translating the word, "Torah," as "Law" in English is actually a translation of the Greek word, nomos, which was chosen when Jews first translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek. This translation, which we know as the Septuagint, rendered "Torah" as "Law," and so have we.
Fortunately, we know better now; and incidentally, so did the learned Jews of Jesus's day. The Torah was not just the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), "the Written Torah," but also the tradition of scholarly rabbinic interpretation of those five books that has been passed down through the generations and is now enshrined in the writings of the Talmud and Midrash, "the Oral Torah." Both the Written Torah and Oral Torah represent an attempt to apply holy wisdom to real-life situations. Jesus reminds the religious elite of his day that the Torah doesn't offer us a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach to every situation. Real wisdom requires a person to apply the Torah's instruction and guidance creatively to each new situation, not just to offer a pat answer that will fly in the face of common sense and common decency.