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Where did all the rules come from? If we look only at the written Torah, the 5 Books of Moses, it isn’t at all clear where “Jewish Law” came from. This week we walked through the ongoing process of Torah using a single question: What does a good Jew do with a lost object?
We started with Deuteronomy 22:3, which commands us to return things we find to their owners, and not to hide or be indifferent. That’s a pretty broad statement.
Then we moved to the Mishnah, a collection of discussions by the early rabbis, collected and written down in 200 CE. That was more specific, but also a bit problematic, since it left many unanswered questions. For one thing, it mentions scattered fruit or coins, and figs with potsherds hidden in them, but it didn’t tell us what to do with a lost iPod.
So we moved onward to the Gemara, a collection of discussions by some slightly later rabbis who shared our difficulty with the Mishnah. They weren’t asking about iPods, but they asked about seemingly everything else. That discussion was too long for us to read in class, but it gave us the flavor of the Gemara: many voices, some of them contradictory, working out all the angles of the problem that they could identify. Alas, they don’t always arrive at conclusions!
Mishnah and Gemara, taken together, are the Talmud. But what are we to DO with the lost iPod? Or the child’s purse with quarters inside? What are we to do with a bunch of dimes found in the parking lot?
I pointed out that the Talmud is unwieldy. Jews who want to be good Jews need somewhere to get a clearer answer. That brought us to the Codes of Jewish Law, the first of which was the Mishneh Torah, written by Maimonides (“The Rambam“) between 1170 and 1180. He was very clear, but obviously he still didn’t know about iPods. However, the principles were clear: we have to try to find the owner.
Finally, we looked at a modern Reform responsum, “Lost Property.” (Click on the link if you’d like to see it again.) Here someone wrote in with a question about a lost suitcase. The responsum, a letter from the responsa committee answering the question, explained the background (citing many of the sources we’d already seen) and grounded its answer in those sources.
Torah is a living process. Our lives change as history moves forward. Our questions change, and when we need to know what a good Jew would do in our situation, all we have to do is to go to our community and ask. Sometimes a rabbi can answer the question, and sometimes it’s a job for a responsa committee.
As for the iPod? We talked as a community and decided it needed to go to the synagogue office, since it was found in the parking lot. The synagogue could put a notice in the bulletin about it, and it was the logical place for the owner to come looking. Same for the child’s purse: this was an object important to someone, and that importance, NOT the monetary value alone, was what determined the urgency of finding its owner.
Next week: American Judaism!
– Rabbi Adar
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