Rabbis Interpreting the Law According to the Needs of Those who Lived By It

Rabbis had a number of exegetical methods for expanding the parameters of the law while respecting the integrity of authoritative sources. Practical or inductive reasoning, or simply conjecture, could be used to reinterpret a talmudic passage, suggesting that the text is discussing something other than what it seems. The provenance of a troublesome legal text could be limited to circumstances dissimilar to what a jurist now faced, effectively neutralizing the legal impact of the original case. Precedents could be narrowed or broadened to afford such greater flexibility in dealing with a problem. If the situation was extreme, a text could even be deliberately misinterpreted in the course of developing a line of thought. A jurist had to separate a contemporary case from previous legal thought if he was to follow an independent approach. Hermeneutical methods, however, did not tell Jewish legalists when to attempt a reinterpretation of the law.
Perhaps in a simpler world, halakists could have ignored the comings and goings of daily life and let purely legal considerations shape all legal discussions. Yet, no rabbi could be oblivious to the practical implications of his decisions on individuals or the Jewish community. In each generation and in every locale, rabbis had to interpret the law in light of the needs of those who lived by it while respecting the integrity of a legal tradition that was believed to have emanated from Mount Sinai with all its details and specifications. Any ideal of searching for absolute truth was outweighed by other values and goals.

Edward Fram, “Jewish Law and Social and Economic Realities in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Poland” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1991), 4-5.

Leave a Reply