Good Fences…

There is a tradition in Judaism called “building a fence around the Torah.” The general concept is that the people of God, having been given His law, should follow a stricter set of rules in order to keep from breaking His law. These stricter rules, called gezeirah, are instituted and canonized by the rabbis.

An example: scripture says not to “boil a calf in its mother’s milk.” Anyone who knows someone who keeps Kosher knows what the fence is around this law: Orthodox Jews do not eat meat and dairy within several hours of one another.

The practice has been compared to building a fence around a garden so as to keep from trampling the flowers, and is seen as one of the key functions of the “Oral Law” (which, according to Jewish tradition, was passed down to Moses at Sinai in order to help Israel understand and keep the written law). This is seen in the beginning of Sayings of the Fathers:

They said three things: Be deliberate in judgement, stand up many students, and make a fence for the Torah.
Avos 1:1

Many Christians reject the very concept of the “oral traditions” or the “Oral Torah” outright, calling them extra-Biblical. This is plainly not the place for a deep theological discourse on the law and the Word, but while reading scripture the other night, I noticed something that got me thinking about the fence around the Torah.

I found that, while not expressly advocated, building a fence around the Torah is at least demonstrated in the Bible. In Genesis. Chapter 3.

And the LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.'”

Now, while there is plenty of debate about some of the specifics–did the serpent shake a piece of fruit from the tree and bite it so that the woman could see “that the fruit of the tree was good for food?” Was it simply his cunning argument that made her see that it was “desirable for gaining wisdom?”–we all know what happened next.

The fence metaphor given by the oral tradition assumes that Israel was capable of damaging God’s law, of literally breaking it. They weren’t. When they transgressed against God’s law, they broke themselves. The law would not be damaged by our transgressions any more than a stone wall would be damaged by a child running into it.

Not only did the first “fence” chronicled in scripture not do the job of keeping God’s rules from being broken, but it would actually have limited the ability of the man and woman to actually obey God: how can they tend to a tree they don’t allow themselves to touch? The attempt to add to the law in order to preserve it is just an attempt to earn the unearnable, reach the unreachable, and put God into a position where He owes you something.

I’m not advocating hedonism. The law is important, as it teaches us how to relate to God and gives us a jumping-off point for understanding a few ways in which our values make us a distinct, counter-cultural community. But ultimately, the law is supposed to show us our sin–I don’t think fences protect the law from people, they protect people from the law.

I really wanted to work a Robert Frost reference in here, but it’s late, so here’s a URL:

Now, I’m off to bed. I’ll try to write about Terminator 2‘s role in the post-Cold War American psyche this weekend.

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