Given the nation’s political turmoil, Rabbinic thinking can shed light on “loose construction” of the Constitution. A personal experience reinforced that concept.

In 1998, I traveled to Israel with a group from New York. On the way to our hotel, we stopped at Mount Scopus for a sweeping view of Jerusalem. It struck me that the Sages, following the destruction of the Second Temple, could never have imagined how large that city would grow let alone the existence of the State of Israel. But these champions of the Law knew that surviving a constantly changing world requires constant adaptation. 

In last week’s Torah portion, Shof’tim (Magistrates), Moses tells the Israelites that difficult legal cases are to be brought “to the place that the Lord your God will have chosen [Jerusalem], and appear before the levitical priests, or the magistrate in charge at that time” (Deuteronomy 8–9). 

Based on these verses, Jewish scholars offer meaningful comments about interpreting Jewish law that “strict constructionists” might consider.

Jeffrey Tigay: “A judge needs to know not only the law but also its context in the society ‘at the time.’ Only a judge living in today’s world can understand how to apply the law today, even as only a religious leader living in today’s world can understand the religious needs of people today.”

Richard Elliott Friedman: “In every law code there must be a mechanism for change and for application to new and difficult situations. Even if the law is divine law, there must be such a mechanism, and the Torah recognizes this and provides for it.”

Caveats remain. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin: “Somehow tradition and change must be orchestrated in such a fashion that halacha [Jewish law] never ossifies, but neither can it become totally malleable. This is the greatest challenge of our generation.”

Thus a long-established Jewish principle: People must possess the power to amend the word of God without changing its basic nature.

This week’s portion, Ki Tetzei (When You Go Out), offers another example. It begins with laws regarding an Israelite soldier taking a captive foreign woman to wife. The warrior faces certain prohibitions that delay, but do not prevent, him from marrying the woman. Can male members of today’s Israel Defense Force take Palestinian or Lebanese women captured in battle as one of their wives?

No. The taking of captured women was discarded long ago. The Rabbis knew and venerated the commandments but found halachic ways to reinterpret many to suit the times. 

How then to understand Torah?

Rabbi Shai Held: “Not every law in the Torah expresses a moral ideal, a picture of how society ought ideally to function; on the contrary, some biblical laws are attempts to make the best of a very bad situation, to introduce (and demand) a modicum of humanity into what are objectively ugly and degraded circumstances.”

Many issues confront today’s United States that the Founders could not have imagined. But if Judaism can wrestle with the ancient Written Law, calling on the Oral Law to do so, Americans can examine the Constitution with a sense of humility and flexibility.

If we do, we can move the nation forward. Remain rigid, and we’ll drag America backwards to a time when “liberty and justice for all” applied only to some. 

The Short (Pun Intended) Redemptive Life of Little Ned is now available in softcover or e-book from, and Or order from your favorite bookstore.

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  1. Lisa Erdberg on August 25, 2023 at 11:18 am

    Thoughtful and incisive post on a very relevant topic. Well done, David!

    • David Perlstein on August 25, 2023 at 3:40 pm

      Thank you, Lisa.

  2. Sandy Lipkowitz on August 25, 2023 at 12:37 pm

    Thanks for this David. The torah guides us morally and ethically, not literally. Context is important in every situation. The world evolves, species evolve, change is natural and constant. To get stuck in any point in time is not what life, our planet our species is all about. We are in contact movement. Think about Quantum physics.

    • David Perlstein on August 25, 2023 at 3:40 pm

      I don’t know much about quantum physics, Sandy, so I’ll take your word for it. As to context, that’s critical! I like to add, perspective.

  3. David Newman on August 25, 2023 at 1:45 pm

    I read a piece by a former Catholic who left the church over its position on gay rights. He had this to say about biblical interpretation:

    The Bible can be as gentle as a watercolor and as powerful as a thunderstorm. It can be taken literally or taken seriously but not always both. It’s a library written over centuries, containing poetry and metaphor as well as history and biography, and without discernment, it makes little sense. It has to be, must be, read through the prism of empathy and the human condition.

    • David Perlstein on August 25, 2023 at 3:39 pm

      Thanks, David. I couldn’t have said it better.

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