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Letter & Spirit of the Law

“Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord...” (Deut. 6:18).

Over the centuries, this verse in Deuteronomy has attracted the attention of Jewish scholars immersed in Torah study. There is something puzzling about 6:18 which calls for deeper reflection and creative interpretation.

It is noted that this verse follows numerous exhortations to ‘keep the commandments’ (e.g., see Deut. 4:1,5-9; 5:1,29; 6:1,2,17). Throughout the Torah, and especially in Deuteronomy, one finds constant insistence that every law and statute be faithfully observed by the people of God. Why, then, the addition of this instruction to ‘do what it right and good’? Surely if a person keeps all the commandments, that person will be living in a way which is ‘right and good’!

Why, then, the addition of this instruction to ‘do what it right and good’?

For the Jewish sages, the words of the Torah are never superfluous; there must be a further, subtle meaning to be discovered in this verse. Ponder it yourself, in havrutah [1], i.e., with a friend... what do you discover there?

Perhaps you considered, as did two great Jewish scholars, Rashi and Maimonides,[2] that obedience to rules alone is not enough to ensure a just and loving society. More is needed. It is possible to keep the letter of the law but to violate its spirit. Indeed, it is possible to actually negate the depths of God’s desires through foolish use of the letter of the law.

As Rashi sees it: What is fair and good: this implies a compromise - forgoing what one is entitled to according to the law - going beyond what the law requires.

The 20th century Jewish thinker Rabbi Yeshaya Shapira (d.1942) enters the discussion this way:

Whoever wishes to achieve a perfect observance of the Torah cannot rest content with adhering to its explicit rulings. One must penetrate deeper in order to arrive at the ultimate aim of these rulings. One must not only think of what is good and upright in his own eyes but that ‘which is upright and good in the eyes of the Lord’...

‘You shall do that which is right...’ This special injunction demonstrates that Judaism does not rest content with limiting active evil doing, but also aspires to eradicate potential evil from the soul of human beings. [3]

That we should live by the spirit of the law and not just the letter of the law is a familiar teaching for Christians. What is important here is to recognise it as a fundamental tenet of Judaism, a teaching inherited by Christianity. Sadly, in the history of the Church, Christians have often stereotyped Judaism as a ‘legalistic’ religion, supposedly in contrast to Christianity as a religion of ‘love’ and ‘of the spirit’. We can help dispel such misconceptions and stereotypes about Judaism by becoming acquainted with the interpretative processes at work in Jewish tradition and how the legal passages in Scripture are handled delicately and creatively by Jewish commentators. •

1. Havrutah refers to a time-honoured Jewish method of Torah study which requires the active back-and-forth discussion and debate between two or more study-partners.

2. Rashi: Rabbi Shelomo Yitzhaki, 11th c., France.

Maimonides: Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (also known as Rambam), 12th c., Spain, Egypt.

3. See Shapira quoted in Leibowitz, 63.

Bibliography: Leibowitz, New Studies in Devarim (New York, 1996); Rashi: Commentary on the Torah (New York: Mesorah, 2001). Scripture: NRSV

© Teresa Pirola, 2012. Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of website.


Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry arising from the Catholic community, encouraging Christians to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. More... The reflection above refers to Parashat Va-et'chanan (Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11), the Torah portion read for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom.

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