The Law as Love and the Law as Rule: Making Sense of the Particular Through the Universal

I always love the Office of Rabbi Sacks, but every once in a while an episode hits extra hard. This is one case.

The episode (which is also available in text form in the link) is talking about the Law within Judaism, and more specifically this verse:
Be very vigilant to keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and the testimonies and decrees with which He has charged you. Do what is right and what is good in the Lord’s eyes, so that it may go well with you, and you may go in and take possession of the good land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you.
– Deut. 6:17-18

He starts by focusing on Rashi’s analysis, saying,

“The difficulty is obvious. The preceding verse makes reference to commandments, testimonies, and decrees. This, on the face of it, is the whole of Judaism as far as conduct is concerned. What then is meant by the phrase “the right and the good” that is not already included within the previous verse?

Rashi says it refers to “compromise (that is, not strictly insisting on your rights) and action within or beyond the letter of the law (lifnim mi-shurat ha-din).” The law, as it were, lays down a minimum threshold: this we must do. But the moral life aspires to more than simply doing what we must.[1] The people who most impress us with their goodness and rightness are not merely people who keep the law. The saints and heroes of the moral life go beyond. They do more than they are commanded. They go the extra mile. That, according to Rashi, is what the Torah means by “the right and the good.”

He then contrasts this with another point of perspective (Ramban) writing that,
“the right and the good refer to a higher standard than the law strictly requires. It seems as if Ramban is telling us that there are aspects of the moral life that are not caught by the concept of law at all. That is what he means by saying “It is impossible to mention in the Torah all aspects of man’s conduct with his neighbours and friends.”

Law is about universals, principles that apply in all places and times: Do not murder. Do not rob. Do not steal. Do not lie. Yet there are important features of the moral life that are not universal at all. They have to do with specific circumstances and the way we respond to them.”

Here is the point that stuck out for me. The “Law”, in the Jewish sense, is about universals. But “Morality is about persons, and no two persons are alike…morality is not just a set of rules, even a code as elaborate as the 613 commands and their rabbinic extensions. It is also about the way we respond to people as individuals.”

He goes on to say this:
“This too is the difference between the God of Aristotle and the God of Abraham. Aristotle thought that God knew only universals not particulars. This is the God of science, of the Enlightenment, of Spinoza. The God of Abraham is the God who relates to us in our singularity, in what makes us different from others as well as what makes us the same.

This ultimately is the difference between the two great principles of Judaic ethics: justice and love. Justice is universal. It treats all people alike, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, making no distinctions on the basis of colour or class. But love is particular… that is what the Torah means when it speaks of “the right and the good” over and above the commandments, statutes, and testimonies.”

The emphasis here is on the collision of universal truths and the lived in reality of the particulars of love. It is when Law is reformulated as dogma that love is lost and relegated to the periphery of human relationship and human expeience, especially when it comes to awareness of the oppressed-oppressor paradigm.

This is, at least in part, what was going on at the time of Christ. Law as a formative force in the life of Judaism, for close readers of the Jewish texts, sits in conversation with their ongoing relationship to the world around them. it is revealing the way of love and as such love necessarily challenges the Law to be conformed to human experience and human relationship. You see this expressing itself all over the biblical narrative.

Continually though they (Israel) faced the temptation to take love and turn it into dogma and have to be challenged, rebuked, reformed in the way they are called to be formed by the Law according to the particularities of love. When we get to second temple Judaism in the time of Jesus, what we find is a faithful people who have grown the universals of the Law into a grandiose set of dogma. Jesus doesn’t come to abolish the Law in this sense, but rather to conform it to the original guiding principle of love and its particulars. To strip away the penchant for dogma being used to exclude and to reawaken loves ability to form us to the universal principles of the revealed Law.

We face the same challenges and have the same need for this message today

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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