At more than 1,200 pages including the Old and New Testaments, the Bible contains many passages that prescribe how Christians and Jews can live a Godly existence. However, passages that prescribe harsh punishments for divorce and adultery, or seem to condone slavery, are often cited nowadays as justifications for not interpreting biblical law literally. This week's clergy discuss how the faithful can adhere to the eternal verities in changing times.
The Rev. Katrina Foster, pastor, St. Michael's Lutheran Church, Amagansett and Incarnation Lutheran Church, Bridgehampton:
Those of us who are not Orthodox Jews disregard most of the biblical law in the Old Testament. I eat bacon and lobster with abandon. We disregard prohibitions against eating pork. However, there are universally recognized laws that can be applied to everyone, such as "you shall not kill" and the other Ten Commandments. If you are not religious, the commandments that deal with the relationship to the divine don't apply to you, but the rest of them apply to everybody: don't steal, don't covet your neighbor's stuff, don't commit adultery. Jesus, in building on his religious inheritance, commands us in the New Testament to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and let the oppressed go free. And he warned us that money is the root of all kinds of evil. The highest law is to love God and neighbor. Some of us do both, everyone can do the second one. People of faith use their passion against so many things, such as marriage for all, reproductive rights and immigration reform. If we could switch our passions from being against these things, toward being in favor of no hunger, no homelessness, no lack of health care, then we would fulfill all biblical law and all the prophets.
Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank, Midway Jewish Center, Syosset:
Biblical law establishes a moral direction, which guides us in making the kind of everyday, healthy decisions that we ought to make. But taking every law literally could get us into trouble. For example, in regard to a rebellious child, the Bible instructs parents to consult with the elders of the town who will then stone the child to death. Problem solved -- sort of. Or in the case of alleged infidelity, the Bible mandates a bitter brew of water, earth and a dash of curses fed to the suspected adulteress to see if it induces her "belly to distend and the thigh to sag" (Numbers 5:22). Then again, the Bible brings to our attention wonderful rules, like giving ourselves a weekly sabbath, or caring for the stranger, or vigorously pursuing justice.
What to do? The trick is to enter into a conversation with the Bible. What makes sense and what doesn't? What speaks to us personally and what doesn't? The law typically identifies a problem, but perhaps the solution remains in our hands. The way to "kill" a rebellious child situation is to seek the help of professionals who can help us -- and the child -- find a way to a healthier family dynamic. Or a couple experiencing marital difficulties may have to swallow some bitter truths about their relationship before healing can begin. Abraham Joshua Heschel, a 20th century Jewish philosopher, wrote, "The surest way of misunderstanding revelation is to take it literally . . . " and I think he said it well. We can't take every law in the Bible literally, but wherever we go, we can take the biblical law with us as a guide and a challenge.
The Rev. Joseph Garofalo, outreach pastor, Island Christian Church, Northport:
The law of God is transcendent, in that obedience to it is still an obligation of God's people. "Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in his commandments!" (Psalm 112:1). God's law depicts his moral standard as to how we are to live and view life as individuals and as a covenant community. God's standards do not expire or change with the popular culture. In the Old Testament, the Israelites disobeyed God, the covenant was broken as was the relationship with God. In the New Testament, Jesus said that he came, not to "abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them." (Matthew 5:17). Jesus was neither giving a new law nor modifying the old, but rather explaining the true significance of the moral content of the "Law of Moses." Jesus was asked, "Teacher which is the greatest commandment in the law?" His answer, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 22:37-40). Both Christ and the apostle Paul tell us that as we let the love of God work through us "faith working through love," (Galatians 5:6), we no longer have to worry about how good we're doing in obeying God's law, because we fulfill it.