Just like any other system of formal regulation, rabbinical Judaism has a fundamental leaning toward prohibitions. In a secular analogy, it is impossible to prove that someone did not kill someone else, but only possible to prove that at the time he was present at another location. Absence of something is theoretically improvable.

For any case it is impossible to prove the absence of Torah restrictions, but always possible to interpret some restrictions broadly enough to cover the particular case. Take an extreme example: the Torah prohibits taking two sisters for wives. The book also speaks of all Jews as “brothers,” implying that all Jewesses are “sisters.” Thus we can deduce a ban on polygamy, though we know from the Scriptures that no such ban was in effect. On other hand, how do we prove that polygamy was indeed permitted? Perhaps all the personages violated the prohibition which we just have deduced.

In this example, we discounted the facts (Jewish polygamy is amply documented in the Scriptures) with the supposition that the facts violated a fundamental law (the deduced prohibition of polygamy). Logic offers us many other tricks to come to any predetermined conclusion. Except in mathematics, no hypothesis can be formally proved: we just accept the simplest explanation which does not contradict the facts. But in theology, facts are easily reinterpreted or discounted. In physics, if we observed an event which violated the law of gravity, we would reject that law as unsatisfactory. In theology, if a certain event violates an explicit or implied divine decree, we discount the event as a transgression. Unlike stones, which are subject to the law of gravity, humans have free will and can violate the most fundamental divine laws. A recorded murder does not imply that the divine prohibition of it is invalid; likewise, no act recorded in the Scriptures can invalidate a divine law deduced by the rabbis. Patriarch Judah engaged the first prostitute he saw on the road; instead of accepting the fact that Judaism sanctions prostitution, the rabbis invented explanations why Judah has transgressed the law.

Rabbis boast of their advantage over other religions, which don’t have exact rules, and claim that all rules are laid down in the Torah and Talmud. But immediately thereafter they proceed to lay down new rules: from the Torah’s prohibition against lighting a fire to the Talmudic discussion on various modes of it to modern halacha, which distinguishes between myriad electric appliances. Such a derivation of ad hoc rules from fundamental ones is no different from, say, Christianity’s ad hoc application of its founder’s rule on forgiveness.

It is critical to understand that modern halacha is just that—modern; the Talmud does not deal with the using of refrigerators on Shabbat. The question of whether someone accepts the Oral Torah or— like the Temple priests—sticks to the written one, is irrelevant. Though halachic authorities claim Oral Torah as the basis for their decisions, the variety and often contradiction of the opinions reveals how flimsy that basis really is. In thousands of pages of vague Talmudic discussions one can find support for just any point of view.

Rabbis claim that the fact that other Jewish sects perished validates their approach. If survival is the main criterion then Judaism must be inferior to Hindu paganism, since there are a hundred times more Hindus than Jews. There is strong evidence to the contrary: in social sciences where the ultimate proof is lacking, false ideas tend to prevail because they outshine the mundane reality. Also, false ideas are many while the right way is one; statistically, people are more likely to embrace one of the false ways.

In practice, the most aggressive and stringent group prevails. Karaites, who followed the Torah but rejected the Oral law, accepted Rabbinite Jews as Jews, but not vice versa. The Karaites allowed their Orthodox spouses to continue in the familiar ways, and the families drifted to Orthodoxy. The Rabbanites suffocated the Karaites economically and demographically by barring them from Jewish communities. Eventually the Karaites assimilated.

The Rabbis did a great job guarding the Exile Judaism with stringent prohibitions. The problem mushroomed with Shulhan Aruch, the first thorough guide to Jewish observance. For the first time, thousands of trivial occurrences were brought to the fore of theological thought and every aspect of the Jews’ life was regulated. Other rabbis entered the fray: they searched for any situation they could regulate and thereby imprint their names into halacha. Since the late nineteenth century technological progress had created myriad new things and situations and laid ample ground for regulation. Thus the explosion of halacha in our time, with specific rules for things like common elevators, those with sensor control panels, with and without weight and speed control, and so on.

The alternative to over-regulation is diversity. Though the rabbis deride it, diversity in interpreting the commandments is not bad at all. Likewise, people interpret secular laws differently, and they dress and drive differently. Somehow no one considers abominable the fact that people don’t drive uniformly; not even ultra-Orthodox Jews demand that the government extend traffic laws to impose uniformity so that everyone drives the same car at the same speed.

The concept of diversity within the law is the key to understanding the Torah’s punishments. Religious crimes were formulated vaguely enough to make them unenforceable; only blatant violations were prosecuted. It is obscene to imagine God a bloodthirsty monster who prescribed killing Jews for minute violations of Shabbat observance. Rather, only the violations which doubtlessly exceed any definition of m’lacha (daunting job) are punished. Rabbis sense that their law is inflated: how can you sentence someone for turning on lights on Shabbat? But instead of cutting back on the law, they shrink from enforcement; they tacitly agree with the government to drop the idea of Sanhedrin.

Sages deduced that thirty-nine types of actions are prohibited on Sabbath from the fact that the description of the Tabernacle work follows immediately after the Sabbath commandment (Exodus 35:2-4). Thus, m’lacha consists of the types of work performed during the Tabernacle construction. While certainly ingenuous, the Talmudic reasoning runs into a problem: the m’lacha prohibition (35:2) is separated from the Tabernacle work description with a stand-alone ban on lighting fire on Sabbath, which applies to Jewish houses rather than temple construction. The Sabbath and Tabernacle episodes might therefore be unrelated. At any rate, thousands of modern halachic rules of Sabbath observance are infinitely removed from the commonsense Talmudic restrictions.

The Tabernacle approach leads to some odd conclusions. Rabbis allow digging on Shabbat as long as it is unrelated to construction or agriculture, on the presumption that such digging has not been performed during the Tabernacle construction. In the Torah, however, a Jew was sentenced to death for collecting firewood on Sabbath; clearly, digging is no less an exhausting work.

Despite the commandment to behave in a way that engenders respect from other nations, Jews engage in absurd deliberations on the specific modes of turning on electric appliances on Shabbat (with one’s elbow!), which makes us look like clowns. When electric lamps were invented, most rabbis retained their common sense and refused to see them as a source of fire, prohibited by the Torah on Sabbath. The hardliners prevailed, citing an obscure interpretation by Rambam, who considered red-hot metal similar to fire. Though the interpretation was sensible—in Rambam’s time, metal was only made hot by open fire—most rabbis at the time rejected his reasoning as too sweeping: the interpretation bordered on banning housewives from taking hot metal pots from ovens. So the major inconvenience of not turning lights on Shabbat is based on two ultra-strict, controversial interpretations.

But there is more. What about fluorescent lights, which lack a hot metal part? They are banned because the starter uses a hot metal thread for a moment.

Neon lights are banned because of the spark which causes fluorescence. Wait, sparks occur from synthetic clothes as well; should they be banned on Shabbat? The rabbis counter that the clothes’ sparks are low-temperature and unable to cause fire, and thus are not really sparks. That does not square with physics: gasoline vapors can be ignited even with light, let alone any spark.

Rabbis allow tables to be constructed on Shabbat even though the space under the tables “houses” feet. They assume that such a (generally prohibited) “housing” is an unintended and irrelevant consequence of (the permitted) table construction. But microscopic sparks, similarly unintended, irrelevant, and useless, led to the ban on a whole range of electric appliances.

There is still more. Consider LED lights: they have no hot metal parts or sparks as they are turned on electronically. Still, they are banned lest someone think you’re using light bulbs—which are banned on the dubiously strict interpretation in the first case.

In order to substantiate their flimsy reasoning, the rabbis invent still new grounds for the ban on lights. Some of them defy credulity: the bulb’s wolfram thread allegedly becomes soft when heated; the rabbis likened this to being boiled, another Shabbat prohibition. Yeah, making the wolfram thread soft, go claim your Nobel Prize.

When no reasoning can be adduced to uphold the prohibition, rabbis cite the tradition. Millions of religious Jews go to synagogues on Shabbat without an umbrella despite rain even where they have eruv boundaries. Why? Halacha does not prohibit temporarily increasing an existing shade, such as unfolding a tent or umbrella. Centuries ago, some rabbis banned umbrellas on Shabbat for reasons entirely unrelated to religion; the tradition still stands, and the rain-soaked Jews risk their health to observe it.

Halachic opinions on arcane technological matters often run contrary to each other. They differentiate the answer based on mundane qualifications: Shabbat rules differ for plastic and metal wine caps, beer caps, and foil lids. It is quite unimaginable that God wants us to descend into that kind of hair-splitting.

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw a halachic revolution: the look-alike became permitted. Traditionally, things which looked like other, banned ones were also banned lest someone suspect you of transgression. That was the reasoning behind the major inconvenience of prohibiting chicken with milk products; chicken is a bird rather than an animal and can be eaten with milk even in the strictest interpretation of the Torah. Now, however, they have rice bread on Pesach, soy milk ice cream after meat, wigs, and other like things which look and feel similar to their prohibited counterparts. Hypocrisy became institutionalized: the rabbis play games with God and the Talmud, which did not know of soy milk.

Some leading rabbis understand the problem. Rav Averbuch and Moshe Feinstein expended great efforts to circumvent the prohibitions. It is disheartening to see such great minds working around the clock to solve problems which have no standing in the first place. This can be likened to a man who has dug holes all around the road and then walks with utmost care to bypass them.

Sages enacted additional strictures, “the fence around the law,” when Jews went into the Exile, with the sole purpose of preserving religious purity in hostile surroundings. The Exile has ended. Instead of protecting ourselves from our surroundings, we must change the political climate and return to normal Judaism.