Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

Do Jews have a system of religious law?

Jewish religious law is among the most highly developed and extensive systems ever devised. This is not surprising in a tradition whose scripture begins with a large section, the Torah, for which “law” is the chief synonym. Ever since the end of the monarchy, Jewish communities have struggled with the problem of how to observe their own religious ordinances within the context of a larger secular or civil regime. In some circumstances the civil authorities allowed Jews considerable autonomy in administering their religious law, with the understanding that none of its provisions would run afoul of secular statutes. Legal scholars in Late Antiquity and through the Middle Ages produced voluminous collections referred to generically as the “codes” of law. Ancient concern with ritual purity and precision persists in some branches of Judaism, especially among the Orthodox and many Conservatives. Rabbis function as legal scholars in those situations, interpreting the 613 specific commands and prohibitions of the Torah. For Jews less attentive to the minute details of practice, the rabbi’s role is more broadly pastoral.


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