Rethinking Religious Legalism

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It’s said there is a letter of the law and a spirit of the law. The letter of the law is what a particular law actually says, for example, "No person shall cross the street on a red light." The spirit of the law is the behavior a particular law was designed to produce. The letter of the law should facilitate our understanding of the spirit of the law. In this case, the spirit of the law is to get people across the street safely.

It is possible to observe the spirit of the law while breaking some letter of it. Let’s say you’re at the corner of an empty intersection. After looking both ways, you don’t see traffic in either direction but the light is red and displays the obligatory "red hand" signal, which is the universal sign for "don’t cross this street." Reasoning that it is safe to cross an empty street, you walk. You have just broken the letter of the law, which states that no person shall cross the street on a red light, but you observed the spirit of the law, which is to get across the street safely.

Forward-thinking people in law enforcement respect these distinctions. I’ve had police officers pass by aloof while I was "illegally" skateboarding in an empty parking lot in the middle of the night, presumably because they assessed the situation and decided that I wasn’t doing anything that warranted an arrest. On the other hand, I’ve had officers stop and give me a ticket for merely riding my skateboard responsibly as a mode of transportation—green transportation at that—for no other reason than a sign posted declaring skateboarding illegal.

What are the effects of extreme legalism in society?

One ultra-orthodox branch of Judaism is known as Hasidism, characterized by very strict interpretation and application of the Old Testament law. Some time ago, Dov Landau—a Rabbi associated with the Gur-Hasidic sect—forbade followers to use the call-waiting service on their telephones because Jewish law forbids the interruption of a conversation. In this case, the spirit of the law seems to be respect for other people when they are talking.

Indeed, perhaps nothing is more disruptive to conversation than unwelcomed distractions, especially those pesky or impatient folks that must always butt in and interrupt the current speaker. Personally, I don’t feel that using the call-waiting feature is disrespectful. It doesn’t produce an bona fide interruption because it leaves the option up to the speaker.

For a genuine interruption to occur, the third party must be aware that he or she is interrupting a currently-held conversation. In the case of call-waiting, the third party has no way of knowing if the person they are calling is engaged in a conversation. Even if the person they are calling is engaged in conversation, that person has a choice of whether or not to answer the other line. How is that an interruption?

Landau also ruled that answering machines were impermissible under Jewish law because they force people to pay without getting to talk to the party they are calling. Granted, it might be true that cost is incurred for just making a call, but isn’t leaving a message up to the calling party? Does the answering machine itself ‘force’ a person to leave a message? Could they not just hang up instead? “Even if they did they’d still be billed,” one might counter. Okay, but they’d still be billed even if they didn’t use the phone at all. Going further, even if they were to leave a message, aren’t they still talking to that person, even though the other person cannot currently reply? Lastly, whether you call someone in Tel Aviv or South Carolina, you do so through the service made possible by the local phone company, and under Jewish law, isn’t one required to reimburse another anytime they partake of their services? We could go on.

What about the peculiar ordinance that a Jew cannot light a candle or use electricity on the Sabbath? Consider the following statement from a professor at Hebrew University, Moshe Halbertol: “There’s an internal logic because the prohibition is not against light or going up in an elevator, but against you being a direct agent of change in the world.” Though a Jew may not light a candle, he may close a window to keep the candle lit. Though a Jew may not push a button to operate an elevator, he may use the popular ‘Shabbat elevator’ that is programmed to move automatically from floor to floor. The alleged difference is that in one case the Jew is causing direct action in the world, while in the other he or she is merely utilizing pre-existing action in the world. According to this interpretation of Hasidism, on Sabbath I couldn’t use the internet to email an uplifting message to my grandmother. All this comes from a simple passage in the Bible asking people to rest on Saturday!

Is this a healthy way to approach religion?

It seems to me that unhealthy obsessions over the letter of the law excessively burden the individuals who live under them. Christ reduced the entire Old Testament to a single command of "Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself." Might that be because observing the spirit of all laws tends to fulfill the letter of any particular law? If you love your neighbor as yourself, you won’t sleep with his wife, beat his servants or steal his goats, right?

Over time religious legalism can distort people’s understanding of righteousness as they come to think in terms of rigid adherence to absolute law instead of general guidelines intended to produce a righteous consciousness. It was the prophets, including Jesus, who tried to show people that one can perfectly follow all 613 aspects of Old Testament law and still have a cold and unloving heart towards other people.

Dick Innes writes of such religiosity:

One can do all the right things outwardly, have an extensive knowledge of Scripture and have a vital grasp of church doctrine, but fail badly in relating to and loving people. There was absolutely nobody Jesus condemned as He did the Pharisees, the religious leaders of His day, because of their self-righteous legalism. They had rules and regulations for all aspects of life, but their relationships with the common people were about zero. Their strict adherence to rules actually kept them apart from people. On the outside they appeared to be almost perfect, but on the inside they were very rigid. Their legalism or ‘theological rigidity’ was not a sign of spirituality but a symptom of emotional rigidity and a basic defense against facing their inner insecurities.

Legalism exalts obedience to technicality over righteous consciousness and destroys an active faith by replacing it with passive, mindless rule-following. Jesus purposely healed people on the Sabbath to challenge a rigid, formulaic perception of righteousness: “If one of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, would you not help it out?”

We should always be wary of legalism.

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