At the end of a superb take-down of the Catholic bishops’ hypocrisy on social and economic issues, Andrew Sullivan notes,

They have become the Pharisees. And we need Jesus.

Foul! 15 yards, unsportsmanlike ignorance of religious history!

The real Pharisees were not the crimped, hyper-legalistic pedants that the New Testament describes. They were, instead, a Jewish sect of the period that believed in the “Oral Torah” in addition to the Written Torah that Christians call the Pentateuch. This Oral Torah was written down 200 years later as a document called the Mishnah. The Mishnah, in turn, served as the basis for the Talmud, the pre-eminent and profound text of Rabbinic Judaism. In other words, the Pharisees formed the basis of the last 2,000 years of Jewish spirituality and theology. Without them, no Talmud, no Maimonides, no Spinoza (even if Spinoza rejected the tradition: it developed his mind and gave him his philosophical context), no Jewish civilization.

And ironically, it is the very Rabbinic-Pharisaic tradition that subverts the bishops’ position now. The rabbis figured out ways to change previous doctrine in an intellectually honest way that maintained integrity with the tradition. When it became clear that Biblical mandates to forgive all debts made the development of a market economy extremely difficult, the Pharisee Hillel (Jesus’ contemporary) issued a ruling that allowed many of those debts to be recovered. When the rabbis saw that literal application of Exodus’ “an eye for an eye” would yield nothing but increasing bloodiness, they interpreted the tradition to have it be compensated for with damages. The rabbis also worried that the Bible was obsessed with capital punishment, and thus greatly restricted executions, by promoting evidentiary exclusions. A court that executes one person in 20 years, ruled Rabbi Akiva, is a “bloody court.” The rabbis could figure out how to do this because they recognized Divine law changes according to circumstances. There is a wonderful Talmudic Aggadah (homily) where God puts Moses in a time machine and plops him into Rabbi Akiva’s classroom: Moses has no idea what is going on and has no idea what everyone is talking about, but finally gets it when Akiva argues for a legal provision on the grounds that “it was given to Moses at Sinai.” Things change.

Thus, it is not that we are stuck with Pharisees. If the bishops were Pharisees, we would all be much better off.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff is a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles.