Halakha is based on the commandments in the Torah (five books of Moses) as viewed through the discussions and debates contained in the classical rabbinic literature, especially the Mishnah and the Talmud. Jews refer tp the Torah as The Written Law, and the Mishnah and Talmud as the oral law.
Unlike secular precedent based systems, halakha is a religious system, whose axiom is that Jewish law represents the will of God. Most Orthodox Jews, hold that halakha represents the actual will of God, either directly, or as closely to directly as possible. If the laws in Jewish law codes are not the word of God per se, they are nonetheless derived from the literal word of God in the Torah, using a set of rules also revealed by God to Moses on Mount Siani, and have been derived with the utmost accuracy and care. In this worldview, one's ancestors are closer to the divine revelation and the later Mishnaic and Talmudic rabbis; as such, the corollary is that one must be extremely conservative changing or adapting Jewish law. This view is found in all branches of Orthodox Judaism, and in the right-wing of Conservative Judaism.
Other religious Jews equally hold that while God is real, for theological reasons they hold that the Torah is not the word of God in a literal sense. However, in this view the Torah is still held as mankind's record of its understanding of God's revelation, and thus still has divine authority. In this view, traditional Jewish law is still seen as binding. Jews who hold by this view generally try to use modern methods of historical study to learn how Jewish law has changed over time, and are more willing to change Jewish law in the present. This view is found within Conservative Judaism, and within the left wing of Orthodoxy.
Eras of Jewish history imporant in Jewish law:
Generally speaking, a rabbi in any one period of time does not overrule specific laws from earlier eras of Jewish history, unless one can find another rabbi from that era whose ruling can be used to support his view.
According to a midrash, there are supposedly 613 mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah; In Hebrew these are known as the Taryag mitzvot. There are 248 positive mitzvot and 365 negative mitzvot given in the Torah, supplemented by seven mitzvot legislated by the rabbis of antiquity. However, in practice there is no one definative list that explicates the 613 laws: Centuries after the idea of 613 laws came into existence various rabbis compiled lists of the 613 laws, yet each list varied slightly. The differences come about because in some places the Torah lists related laws together, so it is difficult to know whether one is dealing with law, which lists several cases, or several separate laws.
The boundaries of Jewish law are determined through the halakhic process; the halakhic process is a religious-ethical system of legal precedents. In this system, one may re-interpret or change the law through a formal argument. These arguments are effectively, yet unofficially, peer-reviewed. When a rabbi proposes a new interpretation of a law, that interpretation is not normative for the Jewish community until it becomes accepted by other committed and observant members in the community. New legal precedents are based on the standard codes of Jewish law, and the responsa literature. The Hebrew term for the responsa is '"Sheelot U-Teshuvot"', literally "Questions and Answers".
There is no formal peer-review process for the entire Jewish community in general, since the Jewish community has no one central body that speaks for all of Judaism. However, within certain Jewish communities formal organized bodies exist: Each sect of Orthodox Hasidic Judaism has their own rebbe, who is their ultimate decisor of Jewish law. Within Modern Orthodox Judaism, there is no one committee or leader, but Modern Orthodox rabbis generally agree with the views set by consensus by the leaders of the Rabbinical Council of America. Within Conservative Judaism, the Rabbinical Assembly has an official Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.
During the time of the Mishnah, the oral law was said to be derived from the written Torah by virtue of one or more of the following methods:
Judaism divides the laws into two basic categories:
Laws are also divided into positive and negative commands, which are treated differently in terms of Divine and human punishment. Positive commands add to your balance, violation of negative commands detracts from it. One thus wants to do as many positive commands as possible, and violate as few negative commands as possible, so as to improve one’s standing with God.
In earlier days, when Jews had a functioning court system, courts were empowered to administer physical punishments for various violations, upon conviction by far stricter standards of evidence than are acceptable in American courts: corporal punishment, incarceration, excommunication. Since the fall of the Temple, executions have been forbidden. Since the fall of the autonomous Jewish communities of Europe, the other punishments have also fallen by the wayside. Today, then, one’s accounts are reckoned solely by God.
In antiquity, there was a body called the Sanhedrin, a Supreme Court and legislature for Judaism, which had the power to create and administer binding law on all Jews. That court ceased to function in its full mode in 40 CE. Today, application of Jewish law is left to the local rabbi, and the local rabbinical courts, with only local applicability.
Judaism regards the violation of mitzvot (Hebrew language, "commandments") to be a sin. The term sin is theologically loaded, as it means different things to Jews and Christians. In Christianity a sin is a crime committed against God, from which one will suffer a tremendous divine punishment, unless one repents. Judaism has a wider definition of the term sin, and also uses it to include violations of Jewish law that are not necessarilly a lapse in morality. Further, Judaism holds it as given that all people sin at various points in their lives, and hold that God always tempers justice with mercy.
The generic Hebrew word for any kind of sin is aveira. Based on the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) Judaism describes three levels of sin.
Judaism holds that no human being is perfect, and all people have sinned many times. However a state of sin does not condemn a person to damnation; only one or two truly grievous sins lead to anything approaching the Christian hot hell.
Orthodox Judaism holds that the words of the Torah (Pentateuch) were indeed dictated by God to Moses in almost precisely the way that they exist in the Torah today. The laws contained in the Written Torah were given along with detailed explanations, how to apply and interpret them. Some of the details of this additional transmission have been lost over the millennia and reconstructed in accordance with internally consistent rules. The collective corpus of this non-biblical revelation is called the Oral Law. It is these interpretations that constitute the basis of religious laws that Jews know today.
Conservative Judaism holds that the current text of the Torah is a composite that was redacted together from earlier sources. Conservative Jews hold that it is possible to believe that God is real and that prophets like Moses really were inspired by God. However, whatever records and traditions relating to such events were apparently transmitted in various forms for many centuries. This says nothing about whether the Torah is based on God or not, and so this idea not a theological threat. Therefore Conservative Judaism teaches that one should make use of literary and historical analysis to understand how these texts developed, and to help them understand how they may applied in our own day.
Conservative Jews view the laws and customs from the various law codes as the basis for normative Jewish law. Solomon Schechter writes "however great the literary value of a code may be, it does not invest it with infallibility, nor does it exempt it from the student or the Rabbi who makes use of it from the duty of examining each paragraph on its own merits, and subjecting it to the same rules of interpretation that were always applied to Tradition". [Solomon Schechter].
Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism both hold that modern views of how the Torah and rabbinic law developed imply that the body of rabbinic Jewish law is no longer normative (seen as binding) on Jews today. Therefore Jews are not expected or taught to follow most of halakha. Those in the traditionalist wing of these movements hold that each Jew is obligated to interpret the Torah, Talmud and other Jewish works for themselves, and this interpretation will create separate commandments for each person. Those in the neo-traditional wing of Reform include Rabbis Eugene Borowitz[?] and Gunther Plaut[?].
Those in liberal and classical wing of Reform believe that in this day and era most Jewish religious rituals are no longer necessary, and many hold that following most Jewish laws are actually counter-productive. They propose that Judaism has entered a phase of ethical monotheism, and that the laws of Judaism are only remnants of an earlier stage of religious evolution, and should not be followed. This is considered heretical not only by Orthodoxy, but by Conservative Judaism, and perhaps by some in the traditional wing of Reform.
All denominations of Jews hold that gentiles are not obligated to follow Halakha; only Jews are obligated do so. Judaism has always held that gentiles are obligated only to follow the seven Noahide laws; these are laws that the oral law derives from the covenant God made with Noah after the flood, which apply to all descendants of Noah, i.e. all of mankind. The Noahide laws are derived in the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 57a), and are listed here: