In Judaism, there is a tradition known as “building a fence around the law.” As the page linked in that last sentence indicates, it derives from a verse in the Tanakh — the Hebrew scriptures known to Christians as “the Old Testament” — specifically from Leviticus 18:30.
Leviticus, as you may know, is a favored book of the Republican Party because it tells them not to tolerate homosexuals and to avoid eating shrimp or lobster at fundraisers. According to them one of those rules is absolutely applicable to the modern world.
But I’m not really going to get into politics here: this post is about the negative aspects of building fences and how this can as easily choke the law and divorce it from the intent behind it as it can protect it.
Although this concept of “building a fence about the law” is well-debated within the Jewish rabbinical tradition, the idea is not actually unique to Jews. In fact, one way to explain the whole concept of fence-building is with this perfect Halloween song (actually an old African-American spiritual, if I recall correctly) called “Them Dry Bones”:
Toe bone connected to the foot bone…
Foot bone connected to the leg bone…
Leg bone connected to the knee bone…
The point of this idea of building a fence — or of your toe bone being connected to other bones — is if you don’t want to damage the one, don’t go near the other.
If the law says, “don’t boil a kid [goat] in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19), then one way to make sure you don’t do this is to create a law that says you can’t get milk anywhere near your meat dishes.
Ultimately, you want to live frum (“devout” or “religious”), you make sure your kitchen has two dishwashers (one for “the meat side of the law” and the other for “the dairy side of the law”). Or you could just wait 24 hours, make sure the dishwasher is clean after you do the meat dishes and run it through two cycles while it’s empty just to be sure before doing the dairy dishes. Or vice-versa. Unless it’s plastic.
But while keeping your toe bone connected to your foot bone might be a good thing, building a fence around the law frequently leads to bizarre results. Think “zero tolerance,” for one.
Here, we begin not with milky kids, but with violent ones.
One day a kid brings a gun to school and shoots another kid, who dies. Kids killing kids at school is bad. So let’s have a rule about bringing guns to school.
But there are other ways kids could kill kids. They could use knives. So let’s have a rule against having knives at school.
But sometimes kids bring knives to school and leave them in their cars because of the rule. So let’s have a rule against having knives in your car when your car is at the school.
But sometimes reasonable people think the knife is just really small, or is just a tool, not a weapon, and then they don’t punish kids for breaking the rules against knives and someone could die. So let’s have a rule against bending the rules about kids who bring knives to use as tools and not as weapons.
Maybe we should change the name of that song to “Them Dumb Bones.”