Free Interpretation of Torah
Moshe Ben-Chaim
What is the Torah's view on whether we have free rights to interpret the Torah and it's laws as we see fit?
Today, many people say, "I follow what laws I can, and interpret (follow) the Torah in my own way". Or, "I have to be comfortable with my Judaism. Maybe its good for some people when all the laws are followed, but that's not for me". And, "G-d knows that I'm doing my best."
In response to this last statement, I say, G-d knows man perfectly. He designed us, and possesses the foreknowledge that man would make this claim. In response, G-d stated in the Torah (Deut. 29:18) that if one says,"Ki b'shrirus libi alaich", "because I go in the councils of my heart", he will not be safeguarded from the curses of G-d written therein. Meaning, if one 'feels' that something is correct, while it opposes Torah, this "following of one's heart" (one's own understandings) will cause his inevitable destruction.
If one posits that there is a G-d who gave the Torah, these opinions will be problematical for a few reasons:
Accurate Transmission of the Law
The Talmud contains the only valid interpretations of Jewish Law. As the Torah points out, "Al pi haTorah asher yorucha", "you shall follow the Torah as they (the Rabbis) teach you". Meaning, no one but the accepted Rabbis have the right to interpret Torah law. Additionally, we are not experiencing a "telephone" scenario of second, third, and fourth generation of discussions. We are reading the actual and only discussions of the law. Hence, no distortion.
Complete Body of the Law
The Talmud contains the only recorded discussions of the Rabbis, informing us what the only possibilities of the theories of the law are. There are no other possible views. No one can come along after the Talmud and offer another interpretation. If 3 opinions are listed in a given section in the Talmud, there are only 3 because a fourth is impossible, given the structure of the law. If one wants to add more, what he performs or understands will not be considered Judaism according to all Rabbis from Moses, throughout the Talmud. The Torah clearly states (Deut. 13:1) "Every thing which I command you to do, that is what you should be careful to do. Do not add upon, it and do not detract from it".
Precise Structure of the Law
To this, one might feel restricted in his thinking, "I can't come up with another interpretation?" This response is generated out of a need to feel unrestricted. The fact is, we are restricted!
The Torah, like any other science created by G-d, possesses a limited a structure. It is not a free system of interpretation. All interpretations of the Rabbis were based on principles handed down directly by Moses, from G-d. As G-d created this Torah, He is the only One Who can tell us how it was written so we understand His intent. We cannot project our understanding onto Him. If we are to follow the Torah, it must be by his rules. Similarly, if one desires to learn the effects of boiling on certain chemicals, he must reach 212º F . If he only reaches 211º F, he is not working within chemistry. One degree of deviation from what boiling is, is not recognized by scientists, or by nature as "boiling". Here too we are restricted , if we desire to accurately understand science.
The same applies to the Torah. It is a science, just as chemistry, biology, physics, as it is created by the same Creator. Torah contains the same level of ingenuity in design. This point must be appreciated.
Additionally, the Torah has built in safeguards against someone suggesting new interpretations:
Reading of the Chumash each week to make the passages fluent on our lips; The meticulous laws governing the writing the Torah; Laws where to start or end a paragraph in the Torah scroll; Laws regarding spaces in the Torah scroll; How to write each letter in the Torah; G-d commanding us to follow the Rabbis, to the exclusion of any other source for interpretation; G-d has promised us that the Torah will not leave our mouths ever. G-d guarantees that what He gave will not be lost. If G-d gave it, He is sure to make certain that it reaches its goal of surviving all generations.
If one is honest, and can objectively separate their desire to be "free of commandments", and takes care to learn diligently, one will appreciate the wisdom and beauty of the precise structure which the Torah was created with. It takes time to uncover, but with a good teacher, one can gain in this life, from what his Creator intended for him.
When misinterpreting the Torah, one does not see his mistake immediately, as is seen in the lab when two chemicals violently interact. Due to this 'delayed effect' of Torah misinterpretation, one is wrongly assured of his own interpretations. We must abandon the attitude that we can casually offer our own interpretations. I would like to see this same person casually offer his own interpretations of quantum physics to a board of scientists. Without following precise rules and theories, which take time to learn and understand, he will most certainly be laughed out of the lab. Even more so here, one must be careful not to underestimate the Creator's precision and numerous rules embedded in the Torah. Addressing this attitude, King Solomon referred, (Koheles, 5:1) "Don't be excited (with) your mouth, and do not hasten to bring forth words before G-d, for God is heaven and you are on Earth, therefore let your words be few".