By Israel Drazin


It is certainly true that most Jews
today, including most rabbis, see a distinction between ritual and social laws.
The first focuses on God and the second on people. In the Ten Commandments, for
example, the laws forbidding idols and those requiring rest on the Sabbath are
seen by most Jews as rules that apply to God. So, too, are the many laws
relating to sacrifices. In contrast, most people see some laws in the Ten
Commandments, such as the prohibition against stealing, murder, and adultery, as
social regulations.


However, although I recognize that the majority of people disagree with me, I don’t think that
the Bible ever intended to make this distinction. There is certainly no
indication of such a distinction in the Bible. Maimonides never saw it. In his Guide of the Perplexed, he states that
all of the biblical laws were designed for people. They have, he said, three
goals: to teach something about truth and help people improve themselves and
society. In his third book of the Guide,
where he explains the reason for the biblical commands, he always gives a
people-oriented explanation for them; he never writes that the commands somehow
help or serve God. He even saw sacrifices as fulfilling a human need to show
love to God. He made it clear that God doesn’t even want sacrifices; they are a
concession to human needs.


What are the implications of this people-oriented approach to Torah and rabbinic laws? First
and foremost it stresses that people should, as Maimonides taught, study the
sciences and use that knowledge to improve themselves and society. Second, it
emphasizes that passive study simply for the sake of study, as well as humility,
inactive piety, and a mystical attempt to unite with God, are not Judaism’s end


There are also dangers involved in believing that the Torah and rabbinic commands relate to
God beyond the failure to accomplish the three-fold goals that Maimonides
outlines. Seeking penitence on Yom Kippur is an example. Most Jews tend to
differentiate between wrongful acts committed against God and those done to
people. They think that they can absolve themselves of the misdeeds against God
by prayer, fasting, and beating their chests. Certainly, these acts are good if
they remind Jews to act properly to people. But if penitents think that they
can erase crimes against God by prayer, they accomplish nothing. For example,
if people desecrate the Sabbath by working on the Sabbath instead of ceasing
from work as the law requires, this misdeed is not erased by prayer. Certain
acts are required. People need to recognize that they did wrong, decide not to
do the deed again, think of ways to assure that the violation is not repeated,
and develop habits of behavior that guarantee that the misdeed does not reoccur.