Sidra Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. The limits of following the Laws of God

God spoke to Moses and said “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am the Eternal your God. You will not follow the practices of the land of Egypt where you lived, nor of the land of Canaan to where I am taking you, nor shall you follow their laws (Lev 18:1-3)

Not to follow the laws of the country in which we are living, but only to follow the laws of God – it is potentially a recipe for disaster, particularly in the modern world in which we live. The Hasidic rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, (1847–1905) known as the Sfat Emet, understood this verse to be unlimited in its reach -: we are not to imitate “Egypt and Canaan” in any way in which we live our lives – even in matters of clothing. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808 – 1888) who is credited with founding Torah im Derech Eretz, modern orthodoxy, said that there were limits, and that we may “imitate the nations among who we live in things that are based on reason, but not on things relating to religion or superstition.”

The prohibition, to “not follow the law of the land” is one which is considered and worked upon in Jewish literature – what exactly does it cover? Is it simply the idolatrous practises of the other nations or is it more? And where does one draw the line?

In the Talmud we find a ruling which is well known in every Jewish community, and which seems to cut across the biblical statement should it be interpreted as done by Sfat Emet.  In several places in the Talmud (Bava Kama 113a, Nedarim 28a, Bava Batra 54b-55a and Gittin 10b)  we find the words of Samuel:  “Dina de’Malchuta, Dina” – the Law of the Land is the Law. This halachic principle does not mean simply that Jews have to follow every secular law (the “law of the land”); it means that Halacha incorporates the law of the land in which Jews live. In other words, where dina de-malchuta dina applies, a requirement of secular law becomes a halachic obligation as well.  And it is an immutable and absolute principle of halachic process.

In the Talmud in  Bava Kamma 113a we are told that it is an absolute obligation to pay taxes imposed by Government. But then a baraita is given (a text that is of the same age as Mishnah but which did not make it into the final edit of the book in the 2nd century) which tells of an argument about the legality of evading tax. The Talmud asks in amazement about the existence of such an argument – “How can it be permitted to evade a tax? Surely Samuel said the law of the land is the law!”  The resolution comes that if the tax is being collected on behalf of recognised government, then one is forbidden to take steps to evade it.

 Surely a lesson for modern times!

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