Judaism

Law and Ethics

Primary Author
Chara Scroope,

Halachah (Jewish Law)

The term halachah typically translates as ‘Jewish law’ or more literally, ‘the path one walks’. Briefly, Halachah refers to the whole set of comprehensive rules, ordinances, commandments and practices that structure Jewish life. A specific Jewish law is referred to as a ‘mitzvah’ (plural: ‘mitzvot’). Such laws cover various topics, including diet, method of worship, purity laws, and social and familial obligations. These laws also form an ethical framework. There are two major sources for Halachah: Torah law and Rabbinic law.


Torah Law

There are 613 mitzvot (laws) listed in the Torah, forming the core of Halachah. The extent to which these laws are followed vary among the streams of Judaism. For instance, streams tend to view these laws as binding. On the other hand, Reform streams tend to view laws as adaptable to the modern world. Additionally, many of these laws cannot be observed in the modern age for different reasons. For instance, there are laws that relate to offerings which require the Temple of Jerusalem (which is now demolished). Other laws, such as agricultural laws, only apply on the land of Israel.


Rabbinic Law

Rabbinic laws are those believed to be created by humans. There are three general categories:


  • Gezeirah: Laws instituted by rabbis to prevent people from accidentally violating Torah law.
  • Takkanah: Non-biblical laws created for the welfare of the public.
  • Minhag: Laws that are not deliberately created, but rather long-standing customs.

Rabbinic Court (Beit Din)

A rabbinic court (beit din) usually consists of three Jewish people, one of whom is a rabbi. In some streams of Judaism, there may be a permanent rabbinic court composed of three rabbis. For less serious cases, a temporary rabbinic court may be organised. In the nation-state of Israel, a rabbinic court is part of the formal legal system and must be consulted for particular ritual matters.


There are various situations in which a Jewish person may require a rabbinic court, the most common being to arrange a get (Jewish divorce document), or to convert to Judaism. Other cases in which a rabbinic court may be required are for verifying a couple’s wish to marry, dissolving oaths and overseeing the certification of the many Jewish legal professions (e.g. a mohel) and communal institutions (e.g. Jewish burial societies).

Guiding Ethical Concepts

Protecting Life (Pikuach Nefesh)

The concept of pikuach nefesh refers to the idea that preserving and protecting human life takes precedence over any other religious consideration. This includes overriding laws for the sake of saving a life. For example, an ill person is permitted to eat non-kosher food if it is necessary for their recovery. As such, the principle of pikuach nefesh is considered to be of paramount importance.


Inclinations of Good and Evil

In Judaism, there is a general belief that humans possess free will as well as the ability of ethical judgement. All humans have two general inclinations or instincts: the inclination towards good (yetzer ha-tov) and the inclination towards evil (yetzer ha-ra). Humans are thought to be engaged in a struggle against their instinct towards evil, but through free will they have the ability to follow their good inclinations.


Sin and Repentance

The typical word for sin is averah and generally refers to the transgression of God’s will through the act of omission or commission. In Jewish thought, sin is generally understood to be caused by the inclination towards evil (yetzer ha-ra). Meanwhile, the usual word for repentance is ‘teshuvah’, which refers to the ‘turning’ away from sin to God. It is thought that, though no human is free from temptation, God accepts sincere repentance.


Intention (Chavvanah)

The ethical concept of chavvanah refers to directing the mind to the meaning of spoken words or acts performed to maintain spiritual intention. It is usually used in the context of prayer and performance of rituals. Ideally, one carries out a ritual or law (mitzvah) with mindful intention.


Modesty (Tzniut)

The principle of modesty (tzniut) refers to both the concept of reserved or simple behaviour, as well as the group of Jewish laws concerned with modesty. A Jewish person may avoid attitudes, postures or behaviours considered to be boastful or extravagant. Jewish men and women are also encouraged to dress modestly by avoiding overly expensive, luxurious or revealing clothing. The concept of modesty is usually prioritised more by streams of Judaism.


Evil Tongue (Lashon Ha-ra)

The concept of lashon ha-ra literally translates as ‘evil tongue’ and refers to any form of speech that is derogatory or damaging in any way. Lashon ha-ra is said to cause harm to three people: the speaker, the listener and the person spoken about. The various references to lashon ha-ra in the Torah are interpreted by many as indicating all forms of gossip are unacceptable.


Repair of the World (Tikkun Olam)

The term tikkun olam has various translations but is often understood as meaning ‘repairing the world’. Typically, ‘tikkun olam’ is used to reflect values such as social welfare and justice. The core idea is that one has a responsibility in contributing to make the world a better place. This ethical value is greatly emphasised in Reform Judaism.

Sexuality, Marriage and Divorce

In Judaism, sexual and reproductive ethics and practices are based on two concepts: first, all human life is holy, and second, people can be in a state of ritual purity or impurity. These two concepts inform the following sexual ethical ideas in Judaism.


Avoiding Temptation

Many Jewish people hold that there should be a balance between the human inclinations towards good (yetzer ha-tov) and evil (yetzer ha-ra). In the context of sexuality, lust is seen as offset by love. One way traditional Jewish people seek to maintain balance is by avoiding overt sexual desire outside the intimacy of a married partner. Jewish men and women may dress and act modestly. They may also maintain a physical separation, especially during religious services. Meanwhile, many Jewish people from more liberal streams believe that they can uphold the balance without such restrictions.


Menstruation

In accordance with Vayikra (Leviticus) 15:19-30, or more conservative Jewish couples may avoid marital relations during the time of the wife’s menstruation and for seven days after. Thereafter, the wife may immerse in a ritual bath (mikveh), following which marital relations resume until just prior to the time when the next period is expected. As a result, this means that a husband and wife are usually permitted to be in physical contact together for sixteen days each month. Those from liberal traditions tend to consider such laws to be archaic. They usually do not participate in the monthly ritual bath that concludes the menstrual cycle and will usually maintain physical contact with their partners.


Spilling of the Seed

In some traditions, each sperm and egg is considered sacred, and as such, acts that ‘spills the seed’ (i.e. ejaculation outside the vagina) should be avoided. Some interpret particular sexual acts (such as masturbation) and the use of particular contraceptives (such as condoms) as ‘spilling the seed’. More liberal Jewish people usually disregard this interpretation. Most methods of birth control are accepted so long as it does not inhibit the laws related to procreation.


Sexuality

There are various laws relating to sexuality and marriage in Judaism. Among some Jewish traditions, sexual activity is considered to be an act of holiness if it is performed with the right partner, at the right time (see Menstruation), and for the right purpose. Sexual activity is generally associated with the establishing of a family through love, mutual consent and sensitivity to the physical needs of one’s partner. In turn, the act of sex is not understood as purely for the purposes of procreation but also as a joyful responsibility in marriage.


Some Jewish people infer that the prohibition of ‘spilling the seed’ also extends to the restriction of any homosexual acts. Many also base their opposition to homosexual acts on the verse found in Vayikra 18:22 (“You shall not lie with a man as with a woman”). However, those following more liberal traditions may interpret this verse to be a product of a different culture and time. Thus, while some Jewish groups may view homosexual acts as immoral, others may be tolerant or accepting of homosexuality activity.


Marriage

Marriage is generally expected of most Jewish people. It is a common expectation for a Jewish person to marry a Jewish person. In more branches of Judaism (particularly Haredi), marriages may be arranged by the parents or a professional match-maker. The Hebrew term for ‘marriage’ is known as kiddushin, which is also the word for ‘holiness’. Indeed, marriage is typically understood as a sacred formal commitment between a man and a woman with each other and with God. Liberal branches of Judaism tend to allow for same-sex marriage. Couples are often expected to have a ‘fruitful’ marriage, meaning that they are open to the possibility of having children. In more liberal branches of Judaism, the focal point of marriage is not necessarily procreation, but the bond between the couple.


Divorce

Divorce is permitted in the Jewish tradition and is formalised through a get (document of a divorce). The ‘get’ is required for a couple to formally divorce from each other; a divorce is only finalised once the husband hands the get to his wife. The husband is also required to give a ketubah, which is the marriage settlement agreed by the couple when they marry. This settlement is claimed by the wife should her husband die or divorce her. 


A religious divorce (through giving or receiving a get) is separate from a civil and divorce that the couple might pursue. However, such practices vary depending on the stream of Judaism. For instance, in more traditions, a religious divorce is sometimes considered more important than a civil or divorce. Conservative or rabbis typically will not allow a person to remarry who has not received or given a ‘get’. Other differences in practice are in regard to the ketubah. More liberal streams of Judaism may follow an egalitarian approach, whereby both the woman and man contribute to the settlement.

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