Last evening, some friends and I were discussing how different people make different compromises in religious observance in a modern world. I know people, for example, who keep kosher at home, but don’t worry about it when they eat out — what we used to call “a kosher kitchen and a treyf stomach.” Of course, plenty of Catholics use birth control mechanisms — real ones. That sort of thing.
Some of these are simply choices that one makes: one knows that it’s not what one is “supposed to do,” but one opts for it anyway, as a way of adapting. But often it amounts to varying interpretations of “rules”.
An obvious example is the admonition against killing. Most of us will make an exception for self defense, or defense of one’s family. Some allow for the state to kill someone as punishment, while some don’t. It’s all a question of interpreting the meaning of the rule.
It’s what judges are assigned to do: they read laws, hear arguments, and decide how the laws apply to the case at hand, interpreting the law in the process. Usually, they use earlier interpretations as a basis for their own. Sometimes they branch out.
Of course, interpretations are opinions, not absolutes. And opinions differ.
The interesting thing is that when it comes to interpretations of religious texts and rules, people do tend to treat them as absolute. One seldom hears, “It’s my opinion that God doesn’t like [x], but others may disagree,” or “The Bible forbids [y], according to my interpretation.” We can read novels for school and analyze them in class. We can watch movies and talk over coffee about what they meant to us. Yet we claim to “know”, without question, the meaning of vague, archaically worded text that was written thousands of years ago.
I’m afraid I haven’t done very well at conveying last night’s discussion — it was more interesting than this. Sorry. I wish I’d had a scribe....