Israel Drazin

Where does the Bible allow people to change Torah laws?

Two sources support the view that the Torah allows Jewish leaders, including rabbis, to change biblical laws, even radically.

  • First, the Torah gives multiple hints that its laws are designed for the ancient former slaves who were influenced by the treatments they received and other cultures. They are not ideal but commands that they could accept. The hints indicate that the rules need modification.
  • The key biblical passages supporting this understanding are Exodus 13:17-18. “It happened when Pharaoh let the people leave. God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines, although it was near. God said He did so because ‘the people might change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people through the wilderness by the Red Sea.”
  • Maimonides explains in his Guide 3:32, “Here God led the people about from the direct road which He originally intended, because He feared they might meet on the way with hardship too great for their ordinary strength; He took them by another road in order to obtain thereby His original object. In the same manner, God refrained from prescribing what the people by their natural disposition would be incapable of obeying…. It is contrary to man’s nature that he should suddenly abandon all the different kinds of Divine service and the different customs in which he has been brought up, and which have been so general that they were considered as a matter of course; it would be just as if a person trained to work as a slave with mortar and bricks, or similar things, should interrupt his work, clean his hands, and at once fight with real giants. It was the result of God’s wisdom that the Israelites were led about in the wilderness till they acquired courage.”[1]
  • The following are several examples of the clues that scriptural laws included to suggest that the rules be updated to the later better understanding of life. The Torah allowed slavery because it was the accepted practice in ancient times. But it signaled its desire that the people abandon it by limiting the practice in many ways. Israelites could only be enslaved for six years. They must be given money at the end of their service so they can start a new life of freedom. Slaves who wanted to remain in enslavement were punished. Owners had to treat slaves so well that the rabbis commented, “He who acquires a slave enslaves himself to the slave.”
  • True, the ancient biblical command common to other early cultures, “an eye for an eye,” is harsh. But the rabbis understood it as monetary compensation. They saw God’s true desire in Leviticus 19:18’s Golden Rule. “You must love your neighbor as yourself.” It means, “Behave with others just as you want them to behave with you.” Often overlooked is the parallel humane law in 19:33-34, which enhances the Torah sentiment further. “If a stranger [a non-Israelite] sojourns with you in your land, you must not do him [any] wrong. As the citizen among you, so must the stranger who sojourns be to you. You must love him as yourself. [Remember] you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am Y-h-v-h.” This law shows that the Torah did not want people to dislodge an attacker’s eye because he did so to another person. We must treat everyone as we want to be treated.
  • Yes, intelligent men such as Thomas Paine (1737-1809) attacked the Bible with vigor and hatred in his The Age of Reason. He called many biblical laws “stupidity” page 117, “ridiculous” page 129, and “lying” page 143. But as bright as he and others were, his observations were like half-baked bread. He failed to take the next step in his thinking, the insight offered by Maimonides and the rabbis.
  • The rabbis found support for their idea that the Bible not only allowed them to change its laws but even wanted them to do so in the biblical portion Shoftim, Deuteronomy 17:8-13. Scripture states, “If there should be a matter concealed from you in judgment…you must go to the Levitical priest and the judge who will be in those days and inquire, and they will tell you the judgment. You should do what they say to you from the place Y-h-v-h will choose. You must do all they teach you. You must do the Torah they teach you and the judgment they tell you. You must not turn away from the matter they declare to you [to the] right or left.”[2]
  • This mandate to perform as the judge states is repeated thrice for emphasis. It is further emphasized by scripture, saying that a person who fails to do so will die.
  • Nachmanides highlighted this law and referred to a Midrash to give the law the rabbinic interpretation.
  • Scripture “defined the law that we are to obey the Great Court that stands before G-d in the place that He chose in whatever they tell us with respect to the interpretation of the Torah, whether they received its interpretation by means of witness from witness until Moses (who heard it) from the mouth of the Almighty, or whether they said so based on the implication (of the written words) of the Torah or its intent…. In the language of Sifrei: ‘Even if they show you before your own eyes that right is left and that left is right – obey them.’”[3]

[1] Translation by M. Friedlander.

[2] I added the italics.

[3] The emphasis is mine, Sifrei is in Sifrei, Shoftim 154, and the brackets are in Nachmanides’ Ramban Commentary on the Torah, Deuteronomy, translated and annotated by Rabbi Dr. Charles B. Chavel, Shilo Publishing House, 1976, page 207.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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