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NO ONE lives by biblical law. No one.

When the Orthodox claim that their conclusions go back 2,000 years, they are just plain historically inaccurate

NO ONE lives by biblical law. No one. If they did: men would be allowed to marry multiple wives simultaneously, stubborn and rebellious sons could be stoned by communities (Deuteronomy 21:18), and anyone gathering sticks on Shabbat could be legally killed (Numbers 15:32). Everyone would celebrate the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week.

What, then, do people mean when they say, “The Bible prohibits people from doing that,” if they don’t observe what the Bible commands in other aspects of their lives?

In the case of Jews, they mean that they follow Rabbinic Law, halakhah, which interprets biblical law and applies it to contemporary life. No matter what anyone tells you, however, Rabbinic Law, halakhah, does not implement biblical law, unless you believe that the Rabbis have the God given authority to interpret God’s word in the Torah. Jews live by the historic interpretation of rabbis as to what the Torah means.

Each movement within Judaism, and historically all communities, had their methods of performing such interpretations. Certainly not everyone agreed, and therefore there were enormous disputes, like the debates between Hillel and Shammai, between Ishmael and Akiba, the Maimonidean Controversy, the battles between Hasidim and Mitnagdim, and of course, the 19th century fighting over reform. Or, the arguments between any two synagogues in your community over correct practice.

  • The Catholic Church lives by Canon Law, not Bible law, with its own logic.
  • Islam lives by the Koran and Hadith. Obviously Sunnis and Shi’as don’t agree, and ISIS’s interpretation is not the same as the Imams of Saudi Arabia or the Ayatollahs of Iran.
  • No one lives by biblical law.

If religious people do not live by the logical development of Biblical law, what do they mean when they say, “That’s prohibited in the Bible?”
They mean, “By my method of interpreting the intention of the Bible, that’s prohibited.” But most often, the meaning of the biblical law is a foregone conclusion. In Judaism, that kind of proof is called an “asmachta,” meaning a pretext rather than a biblical textual proof. They know the conclusion and prove it with a text, rather than the other way around.

Reform Judaism, an ethically and politically liberal religious movement, could not accept the inequality of women or gays and lesbians, and went in search of a principle by which to change what had been traditional practice. The principle they found was “God created humanity in the divine image…,” found multiple places in the Torah, including the classic, Genesis 5:1. But we must understand that the revulsion at the inequality of women, and later of gays and lesbians, led to the search for a new principle of interpretation that would legitimate equality, not the other way around.

The same occurs in other movements. When the Hatam Sofer, Rabbi Moshe Sofer, in the 19th century wrote, “That which is new is prohibited by the Torah,” he changed Jewish history and the principles of interpretation. When Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews claim that their conclusions go back 2,000 years, they are just plain historically inaccurate.

So what do people mean when they say that “the Bible prohibits” same-sex marriage? What they mean, I think, is that there is no precedent for it in the Bible, and by their interpretation of the Bible, gay and lesbian sexual relations are prohibited by the Bible. But the former is open to interpretation, and the latter is simply untrue, as the Bible says nothing at all about lesbian sexual relations. It’s an extrapolation from the interpretation of Lev. 18:22 regarding men.

Furthermore, most of the people whom I have seen that say “The Bible prohibits that,” don’t live by other biblical laws, even as interpreted by their own religion. So what do they mean?

They mean that, “According to the prejudgments and understandings I bring to this argument, I think this is wrong.” Rarely do I find someone who is consistent about such interpretations in their own lives. They simply demand that others conform to their prejudgments, without being aware exactly of the reason why.

If they say, “The Bible prohibits that conduct,” I want to know several things:

  • Whose interpretation of the Bible are you using?
  • What method of interpretation are you using? (e.g.: rabbinic law as interpreted by which rabbi; church law, Muslim law?)
  • And finally, and most critically: Are you living the rest of your life consistent with that method of biblical interpretation, and if not, why do you think you can impose this on me?
About the Author
Rabbi Mark H. Levin has been the congregational Pulpit Rabbi for Congregation Beth Torah in Overland Park, Kansas since its inception in 1988 up until his retirement from this position in June 2014. In July 2014 he accepted the position of Beth Torah’s Founding Rabbi. Rabbi Levin serves on several local boards and writes religion columns for the Kansas City Star, and answers questions for the “Ask the Rabbi” service of the Union of Reform Judaism.
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