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One Law to Rule Them All, or Not?

By Ariel Bar Tzadok
Copyright © 2015 by Ariel Bar Tzadok. All rights reserved.

In the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien coined the ominous phrase, “one ring to rule them all.” One authority, one dictatorial, ruthless rule. Now, here in the real world, can we (should we) make the same claim with regards to law, any law? Can we say (should we say), “one law to rule them all”? Must everyone be the same, and live the same way, under an all inclusive, no exceptions allowed, ruthless, repressive societal order?

Sauron's ring is the symbol of dictatorship, and harsh repression. In the real world, is the rule of singular law supposed to be the rule of dictatorship, coupled with harsh reprisal against objectors? In a democratic society, be it big or small, is the overruled minority supposed to be subject to the tyranny of the majority?

Can we (should we) live as a society, as one nation, extending the definition of this to mean one law, one rule equal for all. Are there any legitimate exceptions to the rule of the “one lord,” or to the rule of the “one law” of the tyrannical majority? Then again, if we begin to make exceptions to the rule, when does this stop? When do the exceptions to the rule override the rule itself, and therefore, essentially cancel it?

There needs to be a harmonious balance between the rule of law, and the rule of many laws, between the one rule, and the many legitimate exceptions, between the will of the majority, and the rights of the minority. But are we smart enough to strike this balance, and to live by it?

Governments are always faced with this dilemma. How can law and order be established, and preserved, with a population divided by so many differences in culture, religion, ethics, and morality? Granted, there has to be a common denominator that enables there to be continuity, peace and stability in the society, but beyond this, how much homogeneity should be imposed?

Differences between groups of people are as natural as differences in the gene pool between related species. History has shown us that every time a single group grows to a certain level, it fragments into smaller groups. The smaller groups will then often come into conflict with one another. The diversification of human societal groups follows the same pattern of species diversification found in nature.

In the human case, a group seeks isolation in order for it to maintain and perfect its identity, and to proliferate from there. Each group isolates itself either physically or socially, and focuses on its unique cultural identity. This sense of independent identity develops, along with its own code of ethics and morals, and the laws instituted to uphold and enforce the embraced societal norms.

One law rules the small group, but no one law seems to be able to rule the greater group. This is why there has always existed social unrest, and political instability, with revolutions and insurrections. Each represents the movement of a smaller group away from a larger whole. Each is proclaiming “no one law to rule us all.” This process of growth, breakaway, and regrowth seems to be the natural pattern. As it is in the natural world, so is it in the societal world of human beings, who are, after all, now and forever still a part of nature.

As this happens within societies as a whole, so too this happens within individual groups within a society. This is especially true with regards to groups within religions. This explains why there are so many diverse Christian denominations, as well as differences in the beliefs and practices in all the world's other religions. Judaism, is of course, no exception to this natural rule.

With regards to understanding the religious laws of Judaism, the Sages of old taught that there were “seventy faces” to the Torah. This was their metaphorical way of stating that the Torah can never be understood in a single monolithic way. Torah will always be subject to numerous interpretations.

The Kabbalists expanded on this “seventy faces” metaphor and have taught that the Torah has “600,000 faces,” not just “seventy.” The meaning of this metaphor is that each and every individual has his or her own personal interpretation of the Torah, and this, at each of the four levels of Torah teachings (pshat, remez, drash & sod).

The Kabbalists use the Biblical number of Israelite souls who left Egypt as the archetypal number of Israelite souls in general. This number is 600,000. Therefore, Torah has 600,000 faces, not just 70, and each face has four individual facets, for a total of 2,400,000 ways of understanding. How can there be one law to rule them all with this natural, inherent diversity? How can there be one rule other than in the most general of ways?

Through dozens of centuries of exile from their native land, Israelites (and not just Jews) have evolved into separate communities, each with their own culture, language, religious outlook, ethics and morals. Some have stayed connected to their Israelite origins (Jews) and others have not (lost tribes). Yet, even amongst those who are called Jews, the greater pattern of division and subdivision, and re-division continues. This explains why there are so many different, and diverse Jewish communities, each with its own unique outlook.

There is one Torah that rules them all, but certainly no one law, and no one way. Torah is not a rigid ring made of unbending metal, Torah is a flowing stream of living water, ever moving, ever changing, ever growing as the stream, becomes a river, and the river flows into the sea. Torah has a metaphorical 2,400,000 faces, each one a facet of living wisdom. The river and the streams are one, so too any expression of Judaism that is connected to its Torah source is said to have a Mesorah, a line of tradition that connects it back to its earliest beginnings.

There is one Torah, yet many ways to understand it. However, understandings aside, a coherent society cannot stick together if everybody in it lives by his or her own rules. There has to be some common denominator that the group accepts upon themselves, and abides to live by it. Without this there is anarchy, and with anarchy, civilization collapses, and along with it humanity falls. The balance between the many, and the one, defines the stability of human society.

In Judaism, there are numerous classical interpretations of the Bible, Talmud and other Sagely teachings, that have been accepted by one group or another, and has become binding upon them. When a group accepts a specific interpretation of how to practice Jewish law, and lives by it, then this is the way that they chose to go. The “way to go” is called in Hebrew, Halakha. Because it is the way to go, Halakha has become the popular word for Jewish law. But Halakha is not to be confused with another Hebrew term, Din, which more properly means “law.”

Traditionally, the term “Din” should be a reference to the Law of God, as found in the Written Torah. Halakha, on the other hand, is the law of the Sages of the Oral Torah. Although vernacular speech does not differentiate in this way, the difference is still there.

For example, the Din (law) of Torah, as recorded in Ex. 20:8, requires a practicing Jew to “remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” This is the Written Law. Yet, how exactly is this to be carried out? What exactly is the practice required? This is not written. Nevertheless, there must have been an unwritten understanding, or otherwise how could there be a consensus on how the Sabbath was to be properly observed? Thus, we have the Oral Torah.

This Oral Torah, however, was not a memorized code of words. Rather, it was a living, breathing, changing interpretation based upon the needs of society in any given time and place. The Talmuds were written specifically to record this vibrancy.

There is one Din Torah, but there are many Halakhot (laws) that interpret it, and teach how it is to be applied. This is why there are only 613 enumerated Biblical commandments, and literally dozens of legal law codes, each containing hundreds, if not thousands of Halakhot (laws). And no two law codes are alike. Law codes are unique to their authors who either express their own personal opinions on Halakha, or merely quote in agreement the opinion(s) of earlier commentators.

Judaism proudly proclaims the teachings of the Sages, and the Halakhot of the Rabbis as the words of man. They should never be confused as being thought to be the Word of God. Such a confusion, if intentional, might even be tantamount to blasphemy (according to one opinion). This is why the Sages were always so emphatic to emphasize the difference between what is called Dinei D'Oraitta (Torah law), and Divrei Rabbanan (Rabbinic law).

Man's law is Halakha, the way to go. Man's law interprets God's Torah, and provides practical details how it should be implemented and observed. God told us what to do, but He did not tell us how to do it. This, He left for us to decide, and decide we do.

We human beings decide how to interpret God's law, and how to best apply it. We do this, not God, and there are many “we's.” Judaism teaches that the law is not in Heaven, it is here on Earth. Torah was given to us here on Earth. It has become our possession, and we are obligated by Divine mandate to apply Torah in the most practical, applicable, and yet humane ways. And there is often a lack of consensus as to how this is to be done. This diversity is acceptable and desired by God. This is how the Oral Torah stays alive and relevent. Plurality and tolerance are the Way of God. Each community decides their own way, each in accordance to Mesorah, each in accordance to Halakha.

So, we see, there really is One Law to rule them all, however, the One Law is interpreted and applied in many different ways, to accommodate the largest amount of various opinions, and applications.

Only a Living Torah which breathes and moves can do this. It can flow, change, grow and evolve. This is the Living Universal Way. This is the answer that creates and supports religious tolerance.

Tolerance, and respect of differences, is also the answer to social cohesion in a diverse population. Live and let live. Life is the Way of God.
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