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Why do we have laws?

01/28/2011

We have laws because without laws the world would be chaos all over. People would be able to do whatever they wanted to.  People could hurt or even kill one another. That is why the founding fathers of our country came up with the Constitution…. Most of the laws are obeyed. When they are not, the person breaking the law is punished.  Sometimes laws seem unfair and need to be changed. The government is constantly changing and making new laws.

This definition of the law comes via ThinkQuest, a website sponsoring competitions and projects for the under-21 set. It’s not a bad summary of a popular point of view: we have laws because people are basically stinky and/or self-centered and/or unable to keep their impulses in check. We need help behaving in public.We are interpersonally challenged (think: Cain & Abel). Multiply the difficulties in any 2-person relationship by the number of people in a traveling band of nomads (or a modern industrial society) — and whoa Nellie! You better have some rules and punishments clearly spelled out OR ELSE.

Seems that God, too, was concerned about an unruly mob. As soon as is practical after leading the Israelites out of the narrows of Egypt (where all laws were stacked against them), the rules & regs are given. Last week, it was the big stuff: don’t murder, cheat, disrespect your parents, or forget about Me. This week, we’re in the nitty gritty of everyday life: what to do with wayward slaves and animals, how to relate to wives and children, dealing with theft, kidnapping, run-of-the-mill violence (purposeful and accidental), and basic property rights. Most of what you need to know in the quasi-agricultural, quasi-citified world of the promised land.

Or is it more like this: the law is now an integral part of the covenant between ourselves & God. There is a ceremony at the end of the Torah portion, where real bulls are slaughtered: This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord now makes with you concerning all these commands. This is a fully balanced laundry list, with reminders to take care of the orphan & widow, avoid oppressing the stranger (because you were strangers…), observe a weekly day of rest, and do the festivals right. It is all one package, the quotidian niceties & the larger existential ones. The covenant just went beyond the simple formula of  “be My people & I’ll be your God.” Details emerge. If you (plural) do what I (singular) ask, then rain in its proper season, food to eat, happy fertile women. Enemies done away with, one by one, and the nice land I promised your ancestors will be yours.

(I should mention here that I like rules — or more accurately, I like to know what the rules are. Can we please agree on who does the laundry and how often? Am I allowed to remind you about something you forgot? What’s the dress code for this event? How much glasses of water should I drink a day? What’s the speed limit and how much can I go over it before someone notices? I find it comforting to know what is expected of me. I don’t like when things are going along just swimmingly and someone changes the rules. I’d prefer to (mis)behave with full knowledge.)

So. I believe that dos & don’ts are a measure of who we are as a people, a way of constructing our identity and drawing a border around our culture. I have no quarrel with that. I don’t even have a problem with equating holiness & rightful behavior — I kinda like the notion, in fact.

What I do wonder about is the extent we need laws in the first place, and in how much detail. Do we need stricture & consequence to keep us in line? Heaven & hell & a good strong plague? Are we, in the final analysis, always an impulse away from stealing each others’ candy?

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