Para-rabbinic adventures
Jewish groups and Darfur

On living documents

This morning on NPR I heard a story about recent trends within the Supreme Court. Apparently some justices (Scalia chief among them) are cranky about internationalism, and have argued that we should look only at our own history for precedent. (Odd, since the Founding Fathers themselves frequently engaged with goings-on in Europe.)

On a related note, the story continued, there's a division between those who believe the Constitution should be interpreted as it was when it was written (e.g., through the lenses of the Founding Fathers with an eye to what we perceive to have been their opinions and priorities), and those who regard the Constitution as a living document which should necessarily be interpreted through the changing lenses of changing times.

I couldn't help drawing a parallel between that debate, and the debate which goes on within Judaism: should we regard the Torah as unchanging and read it through the perspectives of our ancestors alone, or should we regard it as a living document flexible enough to withstand differing interpretation over time?

My phrasing probably suggests which side of the fence I come down on, in both of these cases. To my mind, any founding document or covenant which can't withstand changing priorities and mores isn't actually foundational enough to last. If it requires us to pretend that time hasn't passed, then it's not worthy of our trust or support. To me, arguing that we should forego contemporary perspectives in order to interpret as our forefathers did is the greatest disrespect possible to a text which deserves the best we can give...and that's true whether we're talking about the document on which my country's democracy is built, or the text at the center of my faith.