God Knows Best: Don’t Alter Torah
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
A friend asked the following:
Deuteronomy 4:2 says, “You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it.” Ibn Ezra comments: “You shall not add on your own and think that it is in the service of God…similarly you shall not diminish.” The question is on Ibn Ezra’s word “similarly”: how is detracting laws from Torah similar to adding laws? Meaning, it is understandable that by adding—although prohibited—one wishes to increase his worship of God. But it is counterintuitive to suggest that detracting laws is being equally religious, as you’re doing “less” than what God asked.
But perhaps quantity is not the issue. One thinks that by adding, one is faithfully worshipping God, as he’s being “more religious.” But we can reject this: whether one adds or subtracts, he can equally feel he is serving God. How so? The crime of adding to Torah is in assuming one’s subjective man-made system equates to God's will…that “devotion” to God is more important than formal adherence to mechanical laws. (This was Korach’s flawed argument.) Therefore, not only via adding, but even via a detraction can be construed as true service. For even through subtracting, one can think that lesser and easier laws enhances worshipping God. For example, one feels justified permitting car travel to temple on Sabbath, as opposed to missing temple and abstaining from violating (fuel) ignition on Sabbath. This is how subtracting is similar to adding. Both adding and subtracting assume one follows God’s will. But that is impossible. Ibn Ezra’s words “don’t think that it is in the service of God” emphasize this very point, that we must not guess what God wants.
From here we must explore what causes this corrupt thought. How does a person justify this? It's similar to this verse: “And it will be when you hear the words of this curse (for Torah violations) that you will bless (defend) your heart saying that you will have peace (I won't be cursed) because I am going in the direction of my heart” (Deut.29:18). One’s ego and self confidence, teamed with one’s “religious emotions” deceive one into believing he is fulfilling God’s will. Throughout the millennia man’s religious emotion has justified his atrocities like Crusades, pogroms, and the Holocaust. How many innocents have been slaughtered because their oppressors felt they were divinely inspired and that their religions were the only true religions and all must follow or die? This might be a gross example, but adding and subtracting from Torah shares the germ of religious justification.