Individuals and communities play critical roles, both theoretically and practically, in the preservation and development of Jewish law. Some of these roles allow for considerable autonomy, at least if that term is understood as the employment of one's intellectual creativity and ethical judgment. Jewish law does not purport to micromanage all of a person's decisions. Quite the contrary, in many instances, it provides and encourages moral choice so that, in part, a person can become a moral agent rather than merely someone who does moral acts.
In Part I, we examine how the scope of autonomy is shaped by basic Jewish law axioms. For example, Jewish law assumes that the Pentateuch, also known as the “Written Torah” or “Written Law,” contains words which were communicated to humankind directly by God. Yet, unlike the approaches of some fundamentalist religions, Jewish law does not always construe these divine words literally. In fact, Jewish law authorities openly acknowledge that various Pentateuchal passages, taken by themselves, are incomplete, incomprehensible or at times ostensibly inconsistent. Jewish law assumes that God transmitted to humankind two interrelated bodies of teachings: one, the Pentateuch, was to be written down, and the other, known as the “Oral Torah” or the “Oral Law,” was to be transmitted from Teacher to Student. It is the Oral Torah that clarifies, resolves and supplements the Written Torah. Indeed, because the Oral Torah is necessary to understand the Torah, Jewish legal sources say that “the Oral Torah is the more important of the two.” Throughout this article, unless stated to the contrary, the term “Torah” refers to the Written Torah, the Oral Torah, or both, and the phrase “Torah Law” pertains to the laws that arise from the Torah.