Quoting out of context usually applies to using part of the words to mean something when what was said actually means something else. Context also involves the history of the culture, such that urban legends sometimes require the culture to know more than possible when making its laws. This is the sort of context which shows that tumah cannot equate to hygiene.
There’s also a context of worldview. I discussed earlier that American and British law have a number of general principles in common, and American law is built on the same basis of common law as modern British law. But they don’t handle all situations alike, and I discussed this in the context of when it is legal for police to run somebody over to the station.
The same thing is true for Jewish law. I already discussed how the populace or their representatives don’t get to change Torah or which parts of Torah shall be observed, nor can a majority of non-Orthodox Jews affect Orthodox practice.
Some of you who know something of Jewish history may object. For example, Torah clearly envisions the possibility of a man having more than one wife, but in medieval times Jewish courts ruled to prohibit that. It goes deeper. Leviticus clearly envisions people eating certain insects, but the subject doesn’t come up in Deuteronomy and Mishnah prohibits all insects because we’re not sure which ones known today fit under the four specific names in Leviticus.
The difference is, that these are permissions, not requirements or prohibitions. Nothing in Torah says a man has to marry more than one wife to make sure of progeny, at least, not at the same time. They can be serial wives.
The Jewish worldview is summed up pretty well in Deuteronomy 7:6-7 and 30:11-14 which rejects principles used in a number of cultures.
- Miracles. For millennia after Torah was written down, cultures still governed themselves by miracles or those near relatives, omens or political astrology. Johannes Kepler was a government astrologer and he lived to 1630 CE. In Deuteronomy 30:12 Moshe rejected miracles, which are inherently unfair because they can result in different judgments for two cases with the same facts.
- Heroic deeds. In Deuteronomy 30:13, Moshe says “nobody has to cross the seas to bring Torah back to you.” It would be unfair to hold courts hostage to dangerous enterprises. This is rather similar to the medieval trial by ordeal; everybody knows that Guinevere and Lancelot had an affair, but Lancelot was such a mighty warrior that nobody could prevail against him, and so while other unfaithful wives like Iseult died, Guinevere lived and reigned.
- Might makes right, and its modern counterpart majority rule. I sometimes tell people who think Judaism should change, “Judaism is not a popularity contest.” The Chosen People concept in Deuteronomy 7:6-7 explicitly says the “choosing” did not depend on number or military power. Majority rule only applies in a courtroom, and then only among the judges, who would not be judging the case except that they are experts. Other examples of the minority holding fast to Judaism include Gideon using only 300 men against the Midianites, and the small number of people allied to the Hasmoneans who defeated the Syrians.
Historically, cultures that used these principles have risen and fallen while the Jews looked on and saw that nothing had changed in human nature; people kept running after the famous and the popular and then being disillusioned when the fame or the popularity ended.
So when popular culture wonders why Judaism remains so “backward,” that comes from people who confuse their modern worldview with the only worldview that works. It’s a short-sighted, historically uneducated point of view. It shows neither wisdom nor expertise. It’s not worth getting agitated about. When parlamentarianism and popular-suffrage democracy have survived 35 centuries, then there will be something to consider. And if Judaism has also survived, then it will have 70 centuries of experience under its belt. And so on.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved