The Readings for the 18th Thursday, Tempus per Annum (C2)
Memorial of St John Vianney
I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts;Jeremiah 31:33
DR FRANK PETERS (nee SJ) was one of my religion professors at NYU. He taught one of two required courses for religion majors (such as I was at the time). One course was called Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, taught by Dr Jim Carse. Dr. Peters taught Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He also wrote the textbook. (We didn’t have the book: we were his beta program.) One day in class we discussed the development of doctrine in Judaism through Rabbinic Debate. A student mentioned offhandedly on the way out of class that this process of development is how we get from “don’t boil a calf in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19) to having different dishes for meat and dairy. The next class was an hour lecture on that exact evolution, prompted by the student’s comment. We traced how a very explicit command to not cook a very specific dish became an entire culture, along with the no-pork rule. Jesus could not have had a bacon cheeseburger, but a cheeseburger would have been fine at that time. It was an hour of Rabbinic jurisprudence placing “fences around the Torah” (chumrah) as the saying goes, then fences around the fences, and then fences around the fences around the fences, ad infinitem, until meat and dairy needed two dishes and, in some very wealthy homes, two kitchens (four, if you had different kitchens for Passover as well).
At the end of the hour of really enjoyable nerdery (at least for the student who asked the question) Dr Peters was asked directly, “Will this be on the final?” The answer was a guarded no (it was not on the final) but the method of research – and the method of chumrah – were both important to know.
It highlights, though, a Jewish way of reading the law. Let’s dig in.
The assumption in Rabbinic Judaism, at least since the time of the Exile, has been to avoid breaking the precepts of the law by adding defensive laws around the law. Thus, lest we accidentally cook a calf in its own mother’s milk, we shall outlaw cheeseburgers as well. If it is a sin to work on the Sabbath, let’s define exactly what is work and what is not work, and say that we must stop doing these things ten minutes before Sabbath begins and that we cannot do them at all until at least ten minutes after Sabbath ends. It’s important to note that, over time, violating even these fences around the Torah came to be seen as equal in magnitude to violating the Torah itself.
And, to be honest, many Christians read the law the same way. My current stress point is how many men wear baseball caps in Church. I don’t really care about women and head-coverings, but I was raised to take off my hat or cap when I pray, when in church, when the sacrament (or an icon) passes in an outdoor procession, when the flag passes in a parade, or when a political leader passes: the mayor, the president, etc. This is simple respect. Yet I know there are some cultures where the reverse is true: to present oneself without one’s head covered would be to claim authority. The US is not such a place. And I stress myself out wanting to run over with a ruler and swat them. Is the law not only to be obeyed but also to be protected by my actions? Should I work to pass civil laws to protect the Law of God from being violated?
This way of reading law, however, does not sound like what God promised Jeremiah. “I will put my law within them, and write it on their hearts.”
The question to ask is whether or not the “law in our hearts” is a duplication of the 613 laws of the Torah. Should I not be thankful that someone is in Church at all and not worry about their clothing?
That leads us to wonder, more directly, what the purpose of the Torah was. Is Torah a law code or something else? The word, “Torah”, means instruction. Is it there to teach us certain legal things or is there something else going on?
I have not worked all this out yet (the Church is still doing so, actually). So we need to open end this meditation off this springboard: IF the instruction was to draw everyone towards God in the death of Messiah, it’s not really a question of bacon cheeseburgers.