You teach the importance of taking the laws as a whole. But verses like Deuteronomy 22:21pronounce you must stone a woman to death in the door of her father’s house.
If you cannot pick and choose what to follow, and you cannot say that it isn’t to be taken literally, what must I say about this contradiction?
This is perhaps why people pick and choose…
We have a feeling you are asking a question that many share. We certainly do think the Bible becomes meaningless if we only follow verses with which we agree or understand. You are mistaken, however, in believing that we, or other Bible-believing Jews, follow the Bible’s English translation literally.
In 2007, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to follow the Bible as Literally as Possible was published. While it was a clever marketing idea, the author did things that no observant Jew, from Abraham until today, ever did such as throwing pebbles at an adulterer. He also neglected to do things that are and have always been part of Judaism such as praying while wearing phylacteries every morning. Unlike his year-long adventure foolishly wearing a white robe and sandals, we follow the vast body of ancient Jewish wisdom that explains the details, unpacks the mysteries, and makes sense of the written one.
While certain minor details vary among serious Jews according to their various traditions, there are many more that are shared. In our age of international communication we can see that Jews in Yemen and Poland, for example, separated for centuries and surrounded by completely different cultures, all followed the same general outline for kosher food. That outline is not detailed in the written Bible but is part of the oral transmission. It’s similar for all our observances. One group might light oil lamps to welcome in the Sabbath while another might use candles, but both will mark the entrance of the Sabbath with natural flames.
At the same time as there is room for modernity in our life, we reject the idea that we know better than God. No modern psychologist can convince us that a current trend is wiser than the guidance of our Creator, for example by suggesting that gender is declared rather than birthed. For this reason, we can’t use popular “modern” ideas to permit practices that have always been forbidden.
When it comes to verses like the one you quote, you might find it interesting to know the following. Although the Bible is full of actions that deserve the death penalty, never in Jewish history have those penalties been regularly carried out in practice. The legal hurdles that must be overcome before a death penalty was carried out are immense. However, the idea that certain actions threaten the well-being of an entire society and so deserve a death penalty is immensely important, even if the violator will never actually be executed.
If we aren’t able to accept that the same God who says, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and, “Justice, justice you shall pursue,” is the God who prohibits homosexual practice and requires us to rest on the Sabbath, then citing the Bible as the source of those ideas is manipulative rather than meaningful.
We hope this gave you some food for thought,
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin
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