Judaism is a practical religion for individual people. It has no requirements or conditions that make normal life impossible or cannot be fulfilled in reality. Minute regulation developed only in Levitical and especially in late rabbinic interpretation; the law of the Torah is not oppressive.
Judaism is not a religion in traditional sense. Jews need not believe in supernatural events like eternal nirvana or someone’s resurrection. Even ostensible miracles in Judaic epos may be explained according to the laws of nature. Judaism is a system of ethics which can be understood, evaluated, and consciously accepted. Atheists are uncomfortable with the Creation—strikingly similar to the Big Bang—but the issue is practically unimportant. Some critical people doubt that God dictated Moses the commandments, but what changes if Moses already knew the laws and wrote them down for the judges to apply, as Jethro told him? In the end, Judaism is the law; all events in Tanakh only demonstrate validity of the law. Any other view makes Judaism a pagan religion whose tribal deity favors one ethnic group above others. Jews are chosen to observe the law, and remain chosen insofar as they are expected to observe it. Unlike sectarian radicalism, Judaism is not maximalist. The world is not divided between good and evil. According to Talmudic tradition, it is enough for men to be one-thousandth good and enter the heavenly realm. The commandments do not require absolute obedience in the sense that transgression does not preclude righteousness. The more a man keeps, the better, the easier is the Way. Transgression is cause for repentance, aimed at not repeating the mistake.
There is no anger. God is as indifferent to people’s behavior as he is immutable. Commandments are instructions for living in this world. One can disregard them and constantly stumble upon obstacles. Those are not God’s anger, not blows of fate, but simply laws of nature which we do not yet understand. The commandments tell us how to live comfortably in the field of those laws; obeying them keeps the Way free of hindrance.
No one complains of the warning on an electrical appliance. That caution is a consequence of the law of nature, not an arbitrary rule. One may ignore it and touch the wire. Shock is not a result of rage, but the effect of natural phenomena. Commandments are the same kind of advice. People are free to observe the commandments or refuse Judaism.
People endowed with free will need not follow arbitrary, incomprehensible laws, if choice exists (it does not exist for the law of gravitation). But the commandments are not arbitrary. The Ten Commandments establish just and efficient society; other rules more or less plausibly interpret the Ten. A person who encounters interpretation he disagree with is entitled to reject it, though not without large benefit of doubt: if many other rules are correct, perhaps the one in question is only misunderstood. The original Judaism did not even threaten afterlife punishment: souls of good and evil alike abode in the eternal sleep, returning to the primordial unity where no such distinctions exist. Judaism was conceived as a religion of free will without the coercion of afterlife threat or subornation of earthly privilege. Not incidentally, Hebrews were promised neither dominance, nor riches, but the priesthood of serving God.
The values of freedom and individualism, features of the modern political landscape since the American War of Independence and the French Revolution, were declared three thousand years ago from Sinai. The social dimensions of the Ten Commandments characterize any free society. Jewish theology stipulates free will and responsibility as the bases of human actions. Do not put the Lord your God to the test implies that people should rely on their actions, not prayer or rituals.
Judaism, unlike other religions, is orthopraxy, a way of deeds. A Christian can cross himself before or after a murder; his only maxim, “you should love your neighbor” is sufficiently flexible – perhaps he even murdered a Jew out of love to Christ. Jews have clear commandments, and minimally religious Jew cannot murder. In family life, good deeds are more important than cheerful repetition of “I love you”; similarly in religion.
Observing the Judaic ethics is the all-important end; the path matters, not goals like salvation or nirvana. Jews are taught to enjoy the process of life, made comfortable by their ethics, not strive for otherworldly aims.
Judaism is based on two principles: love to God and not harming others. The Ten Commandments develop these principles into actionable rules. The Ten Commandments include four minimal, commonsense religious rules, but theories, including political theories, are also based on axioms. The axioms undergirding democracy, egalitarianism and state authority, called self-evident, are more ambiguous than the commandments. Other commandments are deduced from the Ten, and rabbis later deduced more rules from the commandments. Thus, kashrut interprets You shall not murder, and the rules against homosexuality elaborate You shall not commit adultery. This is a classic three-tier legislation: constitution, laws, and government decrees. The last are open to doubt, correction, and modernization. The second might be reinterpreted or sometimes changed, though the burden of proof that changes are necessary lies on the challengers. The first tier is immutable, and forms the cultural basis of the nation. Likewise, the Ten Commandments are divine, but derivative commandments could be questioned and rabbinical law modernized.
The first two commandments, to love God and to eschew idolatry, are the axioms that assure acceptance of the Torah’s social system. Socialists require us to love egalitarianism and to eschew self-interest. Philosophical schools refer usually to an authoritative founder or rationalize their features. Jewish laws rest on divine authority.
Other commandments also promote liberalism, though layers of interpretation can produce unexpected results. The injunctions against homosexuality and bestiality stem from the prohibition of adultery in pagan temples—not merely infidelity—which is dubiously expanded. Advanced secular societies often carry no less odd prohibitions from the earlier days: Florida theoretically criminalizes oral sex. Few would not care their wife copulated with bulls. Even the expanded legislation binds only adult Jews who covenant to obey them. Everybody not willing to observe these moral rules—and be punished for violation—is free to leave. Numerous Judaic laws are necessary. No country relies on the Bill of Rights; all countries develop legal systems. To say, Do no harm is not enough; sometimes some people must be harmed to spare the others. To say, Do not steal, is not enough; societies collect taxes. Love one another allowed the Christians to kill the Jews. Legal interpretation might be left to people in religious or private matters, but not in public sphere.
About three thousand years after their introduction, 603 commandments need surprisingly little, if any change. Many object to capital punishment for private immorality, but that punishment was likely non-actionable threat because no witnesses were available to prove the offense.
Though the Levitical laws constitute a major part of the Torah, most scholars agree that they were introduced later and for other purposes. Levitical laws hardly affected ancient laity, perhaps were never practiced at all—so massive are the sacrificial requirements—and mean nothing without the hereditary Levites and the temple. The rites were impractical already in Hasmonean times: the Temple repeatedly desecrated by invaders, high priests who were also rulers ergo not ritually pure.
The biblical prescription prohibits monarchy and democracy alike. When the people asked the prophet Samuel to anoint a king for them, as was customary among the gentiles, he told them a free people could not have an earthly ruler and listed the calamities and corruption a ruler would bring: he would rob them and make himself rich, would take their daughters for wives and their sons for soldiers in worthless wars, would lord it over them. The record of Samuel’s admonition is credible, since it was written well into the time of monarchy. (The commandment against chasing after a multitude to evil, incidentally, implies that conscience is individual, not collective, and thereby rejects democracy.) Later tradition dealt with monarchy on de facto basis: practical Judaism regulates evil which cannot be eradicated; Judaic attitude to slavery is similar.
When the Hebrews established the monarchy, they turned away from God. To return to God, they had to create a perfectly liberal society. God chose the Hebrews to establish a just society based on biblical ethics, and their reward was to lead a morally comfortable life. Only in liberal societies, after all, can people realize their greatest divine endowment, free will mitigated only by responsibility, the cornerstone of liberal society.
The system of self-governing communities presented in the Torah is an alternative to centralized government. There is no specific legislation; all are free of secular regulation, since the biblical prohibitions are deemed exhaustive. The justification for adding rules regulating the new relations that appeared after the Torah was written is not self-evident. New laws might be acceptable if they were as well thought out, concise, and as clear as the commandments—not like the modern legislation—and, most important, agreed upon by almost everyone. The only civil power in those communities is a criminal justice system that includes contract violations. Criminals are exposed and prosecuted efficiently. There are ways to cooperate with justices of other towns and provisions for cooperation to repulse a common military threat. Public opinion is incarnate not in a mob, but in the learned—or conservative, thus erring less—and righteous elders.
Volumes have been written on the operation of a liberal, economically open society. Cooperation for most municipal purposes reduced to none, because everything is in private hands. Modern states have heaps of legislation, often dealing with matters of private conscience. Biblical legislation is minimal, and addresses only the public interest, including basic decency, a marked contrast to formal Western jurisprudence which often produces a law industry which haggles endlessly over recondite points, often circumvents the law and lets the guilty go unpunished.
Courts must pander neither to the rich nor the poor. The attention the Torah pays indicates the last problem was common. Torah makes judges the only legitimate earthly power. Judges enforce prohibitions of asocial behavior, negative legislation. Rulers, to the contrary, tend to invent and impose endless positive obligations.
Judaism provides the most important rule of social intercourse, “Do not do to another what you do not want done to you.” That is, do no evil. No other regulation is necessary in a liberal society. Jewish theologians say all other social commandments are interpretations of that one. One must learn compassion to keep from harming others.
Hebrew uses the same word, avon, for crime and punishment. To the Hebrew mind, the two were inseparable. Punishments are simple and logical and do not burden society with keeping prisons at public expense. Sentences are usually fines and restitution of damage. The size of the fine, usually once or twice the damage, is effective but not excessive. The obligatory fines assume other unpunished criminal acts. Unusual in the ancient world, there is no mutilation, and corporal punishment is reduced to flogging, the number of strokes regulated to prevent mutilation. Execution is reserved for violent crimes and a multitude of religious crimes and minor transgressions, though the burden of proof makes conviction for the latter almost impossible. A wife’s adultery is punishable by death, but the legal procedure—the accused was given “bitter water,” a mild laxative, and was acquitted if she did not die—frustrates conviction. The Torah also prescribes death for sexual deviations, but only in the unlikely scenario if the transgressors had intercourse with sheep (for example) in the presence of two witnesses.
An eye for an eye dictates that God punishes offenses against him, and religious transgressions are ultimately judged in heaven. Religious Jews believe they are one body before God, and the liability for religious transgressions is collective. That made the priests to institute punishments for offenses against God. The original punishment, karet, exiled religious offenders and cleansed the society just as effectively as executing them.
Some ostensible superstitions are mistranslations. Num5:2 expunges from the camp not the people contaminated by touching corpses, but contaminated by other people: a reference clear in the context of discharge. When sexually transmitted deceases were incurable, divesting of the bearers was the only choice.
The priestly authors of Torah redefined known pagan traditions to embody the sanctity of life, the community, and the city, and emasculated some punishments. The Koran used similar tactics. About the time Torah was written down, Confucius reinterpreted Chinese ancestral worship into practical community ethics. Chinese worship originally involved a system of sacrifices as complex as those prescribed for the Jerusalem Temple. Confucius, like the authors of Torah, proceeded from the principle of reciprocity. Other non-generic correlations include honoring oaths and revering ancestors.
Perhaps the authors of Torah reinterpreted even the notion of divine. Hebrews, like other people, believed in external force which controls their lives. Unable to tell the Hebrews that no one sits on a cloud watching and guiding them, the early authors thoroughly eviscerated the Judaic doctrine of God from any traditional notions. The opening verse of Genesis describes God as gliding spirit, incorporeal and constantly moving as energy field.
The Temple was exclusivist not just for economic monopoly. The monopoly did not make any material difference for the few priests left in the Second Temple period. They could not eat all the prescribed sacrifices. The Temple the Bible describes hardly existed—thrice-yearly pilgrimages and the volume of sacrifices were unrealizable. Centralized worship limited slaughter, conforming to Judaism’s overarching concern with the sanctity of life. Mild punishments for bringing sacrifices improperly or not at all—opposed to the multitude of punishments prescribed for social transgressions—suggest that the priests weren’t into profiteering. They were entitled to firstfruits—the worst produce like early fruits and first-baked bread—and unhealthy fat. Unable to abrogate the pagan rites people were used to, they channeled and overregulated the rites to extinguish them. The priests created not religion but ethics and prevented the emergence of a clerical caste of economic spongers, sure to emerge if other sanctuaries were permitted.
Torah pragmatically affirms that only actions matter. A person who does not steal is a better neighbor than someone who does, even if the former is rich and not tempted and the latter desperately poor and usually does not steal. The latter’s struggle for righteousness should be encouraged, but his neighbors still see him as a thief.
Abstaining from evil is a duty; observing a duty is no cause for commendation. Policemen do not thank pedestrians for crossing on a green light. Commanders praise soldiers and pass out medals, implicitly recognizing that participating in meaningless wars is not a duty. Failure of duty deserves no gratitude. Records in the Book are negative: what evil has one committed? How many times one shrinks from sin is irrelevant.
Is the approach prejudicial to the poor, who are supposedly more tempted? Perhaps. But the propensity to sin is universal: the rich are tempted as often as the poor. Truly evil acts are few—murder, maiming, stealing, lying in court—and so basic that no one is justified in committing them.
Hedonistic societies, unwilling to suffer and see suffering, interpret the gospel pronouncements against punishment literally. Judaism balances justice and forgiveness, trial and mediation in civil matters.
Punishment should not be relegated to an afterlife. Human beings are not absolutely good or evil, but the eternal judgment is absolute. People should punish non-absolute temporal evil. Weak people shy from biblical participatory justice where witnesses start the execution, but such participation creates community, neighbors responsible for eradicating crime. Voting is another way of building a participatory society, of involving the neighbors in communal affairs.
Torah has no idea of divine forgiveness through sacrifice, prayer, or confession. People have free will; God cannot settle their disputes. Only the offended can forgive the transgressor. God forgives idolatry, the only sin against him. Forgiveness comes from repentance and restitution; forgiveness is social concept, and its theological ramifications are secondary. Criminal punishments are intended to vindicate victims. If the criminal repents, vindication is unnecessary, and the criminal compensates the victim without violence. Murder makes compensation impossible, and vindication requires the murderer’s death. Forgiveness for murder comes only through both repentance and death. Suicide in that case might be viewed as self-imposed execution, preferable to living with non-expiated guilt.
In Judaism, repentance is an action, or more precisely a counter-action, a correction of the wrong done, not a sense of guilt. A repentant person must restore the damage and thereafter keep the commandments as a respectable, law-abiding member of the community.
Torah’s legal doctrine of vindication has advantages over modern doctrines of compensation. Rabbis traditionally interpret “an eye for an eye” as fair compensation, likely because Jewish courts in the Diaspora could not prescribe corporal punishment. Transgressors had to compensate victims for damages, which can be unpredictable, since that requires value judgments. A rich man could knock out a pauper’s eye for minor compensation. Torah offers absolute justice: a scratch on a poor man’s jalopy for a scratch on rich man’s limousine; a rich man’s eye is as valuable to him as a pauper’s is to him.
Biblical regulations contemplate enslavement for unpaid debts. Bad debts result more from malice or negligence than from unavoidable circumstance. When a debtor’s personal income is predictable, a creditor would likely prefer seeing the debtor through his troubles to enslaving him. Bad debt is no different from larceny. Few object to jailing thieves at hard labor; why not enslavement? The biblical concept is not lifetime slavery but indentured servitude for no more than seven years. Call it the debtor’s obligation to work off a debt at the creditor’s discretion.
Torah’s judicial processes are common sense and avoid formal laws to cover an immense variety of situations. Judges in many places are authorized to act with great discretion, proceeding from subjective yet optimal common sense considerations, a latitude that effectively abrogates formal law. Why not convert to the biblical system of minimal regulations interpreted by honest and reasonable elected judges? Modern evidentiary procedures are not different—two or three witnesses and exhibits.
The Torah requires witnesses to carry out the court’s sentence of punishment. Far fewer people would testify falsely or from hearsay if they had to execute the person they accused. Ancients killed easily; farmers slaughtered often. Modern people shrink from carrying out an execution, but men should be resolute enough to carry out justice on criminals, not to push the task off on the despised executioners.
Torah protects property rights, though listing a wife among other assets is a bit odd for a unisex society: “Do not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his donkey, or ox.” Since another commandment prohibits stealing, this one unusually prohibits attitude, not action. Violation is impossible to assert and causes no punishment. “Do not covet” is at the heart of community relations: envy destroys mutual trust and bonds of neighborhood. Conforming to liberal ideals, seven of the Ten Commandments formulate only negative rules: prohibitions, not procedures, telling people how they may not act but not telling them how they should. The commandment of Sabbath observance is actually negative: do not work.
The positive commandment, love God, is the basis of acceptance of the other commandments. It establishes the nation. Another positive commandment, respect parents, establishes the closest social group. The third positive commandment, love neighbors, establishes the community. Creation is arbitrary and calls for positive commandments, axioms. Note the weakening of bonds: love God, respect parents, do not harm neighbors.
Biblical morality is congruent with the values of a responsible individualist and treats society only in the context of dealing with criminals and enemies. Individual people are free and independent in other respects. Made in the image of God, they are the ultimate end of biblical ethics.
Jews detest others. If that seems irrational, consider that everyone detests someone. We cannot judge myriads of people on their out merits, but have to lump them in groups. Westerners are contempt of aborigines. Most people dislike those who are dirty or otherwise offend society’s tastes or morals. Jews adhere to peculiar ethics, and consequently view people who accept less limitations of their behavior as less ethical. Jewish and gentile ethics are not incomparable; rather, gentile ethics are a tiny subset of the Jewish. The Jews who believe in their ethics thus rationally consider gentiles less moral than themselves, and less ethical behavior is an accepted reason for reprehension.
Being more ethical than others is the entire point of Jewish existence; Judaism was given as light to the nations. If every thing serves a divine purpose, then raison d’etre of each live being is to serve uniquely, in a manner the others could not. Humans, for example, have a purpose of life: to do the things impossible to animals, such as maybe to think symbolically. Similarly, Jews exist to do the things that gentiles would not (no implication of the gap between Jews and gentiles resembling that between humans and animals). Jews are not better than gentiles like humans are not better than animals. Animals best humans in many feats, and gentiles best Jews in many occupations. Human society, however, eventually dominated the animal world, and Jewish system of ethics will prove superior to others in social evolution. Soldiers in advance guard are not better than those in the rear; on front line, they only have more difficult mission, and so do the Jews. Harsh demands of front line operations make human faults more clear, and Jewish immorality is uglier than that of gentiles. Immorality hidden behind the screen of the highest values is especially repulsive. The gap between immorality and the expected Jewish morality is staggering.
Jews isolate themselves to build a pure, godly society centered on the holiness of life. Absent of that goal, isolation slips into misanthropy. Foreign culture is not bad, but it corrupts the Jews by distracting them from their peculiar goal of holiness.
Isolation is a wall around the Jewish ethics. Extended too far, isolation becomes misanthropy. The wall removed too far is lost from site and forgotten. To constantly remember their wall of isolation, the Jews should not withdraw from communication with other peoples. Only on the background of considerable communication in many spheres, the refusal to communicate in the religiously important spheres becomes visible.
Isolation must also be limited if the Jews are to realize their predestination of the light to the nations. The doctrine is passive: Jews need not missionize. They must, however, remain visible. Jewish isolation is that of a beacon, for everyone to see and for the willing to come.
Judaism is not about personal happiness, or else marijuana-induced euphoria would be superior to religion. Judaism is not about strengthening a group, or else teachings of self-abdication would be more expedient. Judaic teaching balances interests: enjoy yourself, respect your family, do no harm to neighbors, and do not prey on others. The world created is the holiest place, and Judaism is the manual for it.
 The rabbinical argument that Samuel objected to the procedure of the king’s appointment rather than in principle, is untenable in light of the divine admonition that by choosing an earthly ruler, the Hebrews reject their ultimate ruler, God.
 All people object murder—and the Torah prohibits it. There is no consensus on "killing" the embryos, and the Torah does not regulate abortion. Modern states even regulate what stem cells are morally acceptable for research—a matter of widely different opinions, forming no basis for public policy.
 Most of 613 commandments the rabbis envisage in the Torah are inoperative or irrelevant. No more than a few dozen commandments are observable. Any state has more edicts.
 Even if everyone refrained from inflicting intentional harm, some would still suffer but not at someone else’s hands, and so irrelevantly to morality except for dire situations where the obligation of charity kicks in.
 To consider nefesh (human) as a short for nefesh mot (dead human) is baseless.
 Most famously, the story of the sacrifice of Isaac which substitutes payment for human sacrifice.
 The Tetragrammatton, the unpronounceable, unvowelized name of God, proves that religion was a dress for ethics. Made of four vocal consonants, it was pronounced as iao in antiquity. These vowels are Hebrew pronominal suffixes for “I, thou, you” with the fourth letter – a suffix of the action’ result (such as to write – writing, writ), meaning community. The sense of the collective parallels Hebrew dual plural suffix ai, meaning “thou, I.” The Tetragrammatton is not the verb “he will be” because vowels could not be kept secret in so obvious reading.
 Substituting cut off from his people as euphemism for executed meant that non-violent transgressions were punishable by exile, not death.
 Hebrew and Chinese share the root-cell based morphology; Chinese hieroglyphs are composed of root-like elements. They had similar tax rate: tithe in Judea, and one-ninth agricultural tax in China. Like the Jews, Chinese have huge diaspora, yet resist assimilation; strong ethnic self-consciousness is rare.
 Formal laws open more loopholes than they close. Laws, as all theories, are inoperative in some situations. New laws appear to cover them, which in turn have loopholes, and so on. Regulation becomes pervasive, and still cannot cover all contingencies.