You Can’t Follow All of the Rules!

A popular objection to Judaism and to Torah, in general, is that there are too many rules, that the standard for being righteous is set so high that it is unachievable. Generally speaking, this argument originates with Christian reasoning for the necessity of a “new” covenant, although I’ve seen similar arguments made by some Jewish groups and individuals as well. Fortunately, that argument is utterly and demonstrably false.

First, King David was a righteous man. He was also an adulterer and murderer who used his position of power to manipulate justice. Despite those serious crimes, he is recorded and remembered as a righteous man and one of the righteous kings. Moshe also had his faults, and yet he was Hashem’s greatest prophet. There are plenty of biblical characters who simultaneously erred and were considered righteous. If these flawed men can be counted among the righteous, then surely that title isn’t out of reach for the rest of us.

Another argument I’ve heard frequently is that there are too many rules to follow. A variant of that argument is that no one can keep track of the proper implementation of 613 rules. The number 613 is purely traditional and based on Greek numerology. Jewish scholars throughout the milennia haven’t been able to agree on how to count the laws, even if many rabbinical scholars have proceeded on the assumption that there must be 613 of them. There’s a lot of repetition in Torah, and there are lots of passages that provide specifics of general instructions. On top of that, the TaNaKh is brimming with stories that serve as case law–examples of various laws being enacted under various circumstances. Figuring out what to count as a discrete law is a tricky business before you set about counting them. There are even variations on how to count the Decalogue!

The thing is that there are vast swaths of Torah that simply don’t apply to the average person. There is no modern priesthood, so the laws concerning the priests (including those for offerings and Temple/Mishkan practice) can’t be implemented today. There are also lots of laws that describe the intended structure for the Tribes to use once they entered the land that cannot be enacted today. Those laws were also applied to the kingdoms of Israel and Yehudah. For instance, the laws about levitical cities and the laws concerning the Israelite army and judicial structure cannot be applied at all in diaspora. There are no levitical cities today. The modern state of Israel, while ethnically Jewish, is a fundamentally secular state that does not base its military or judicial structures on Torah. Individual Jews, Israeli or otherwise, are not in a position to make those kinds of structural decisions, and so cannot enact those laws.

Most Jews today do not live in kingdoms, and none are kings. The laws concerning the proper conduct of a king might imply moral guidelines for the rest of us, but they are not laws for the common man. Laws about agriculture are generally agreed only to apply in the Land, although there’s room for debate on that score. Still, people who don’t grow food or raise animals don’t need to worry about those laws. And even modern farmers don’t need to worry about all of the agricultural laws, because technology has changed. Yoking different animals together isn’t a concern when you use a machine to do your ploughing. Some laws only apply to women, and some only apply to men. The laws concerning the treatment of servants are instructive in the relationship between employer and employee, but most people don’t practice indenturement today. And servitude to repay debts is illegal in the countries where most Jews live. Modern men aren’t going to find themselves in the position of figuring out how to marry a woman captured in war. The biblical tribal divisions have largely been lost, meaning that restrictions placed on the marriages of female heirs are no longer a concern. Laws concerning polygyny are instructive about the structure of marriage overall, but don’t apply to people who are monogamous.

The laws that remain generally pertain to personal cleanliness, observing holidays, diet, not worshipping other gods, and acting in good faith towards others. Most of the moral and ethical rules are about acting in good faith, and most of those fall under the broad heading of not committing various kinds of fraud. Even with these laws, their application is limited. As I said above, there’s no religious court to enforce these rules, with even the religious courts in Israel have limited jurisdiction. There are no professional priests or levites to certify ritual cleanliness or treat illnesses or ritual uncleanliness or to officiate at holidays or receive offerings and make sacrifices. Most of the prescribed punishments for criminal offences would be illegal in most places today, especially without the approval of a secular court (and enacting any of them without a trial and the consent of a judge would violate Torah).

Even with the laws that can be observed, we are not required to go out of our way to create the circumstances in which we would need to enact them. The shmita and the requirement to wait three years before harvesting fruit from a tree are not requirements to own fruit trees, vineyards, or farm land in Israel. Likewise, the requirement to forgive debts during the shmita is not a requirement to lend money, goods, or services or to become a debtor in need of debt forgiveness. The limitations on the marrying habits of kings is not a requirement to have a king. The requirement to offer marriage to one’s maidservant if you sleep with her and pay her father if she refuses is not a requirement to have maidservants or to demand sexual favors from them. The prerequisites for taking a second wife do not imply a requirement to have a second wife. The requirement to cover any pits on your land is not a requirement to have pits that need covering. We are permitted to eat fish with fins and scales, but not required to do so. I know I have never in my life been in a position to reject eating a bat, spider, or insect in any active sense. As much as there are laws that require specific conduct of us in our daily lives, most of the laws in Torah exist to guide us through circumstances that may or may not arise as we encounter them.

It is part of human nature to overthink things and complicate matters unnecessarily. That is especially the case when we are fortunate enough to live above subsistance level. If we keep the holy days, especially Shabbat, teach our story and our laws to our children and their children, avoid eating the things we aren’t supposed to eat, maintain a certain level of hygeine (especially before ritual events), and act in good faith towards the people around us, we will mostly wind up on the right side of the Law.

“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in the skies, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to the skies for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”

Devarim 30:11-14


2 thoughts on “You Can’t Follow All of the Rules!

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