Overview: Modern-day rabbinic Judaism is perhaps the most complex and sophisticated religion in the world. With literally dozens of thousands of books on Halachic matters, Judaism has developed over the years to concern itself with the most trivial details of a Mitzvah. Did the rabbis overuse their power to legislate law?
Many, understandably, wonder whether the sages went a little overboard with their power to legislate new enactments. Practically all of Judaism today has no biblical origins but is rather the creation of rabbinic pre-cautions on biblical matters (as discussed in chapter “Rabbinic Enactments”). This creates the question whether G-d actually cares about the trivial rabbinic details of eruvin, say. As to the philosophical issue with this, the answer is simple: G-d, who is the all-capable, can simply “decide” to want something—including what may seem as a trivial act (discussed at length in chapter “How Can the Infinite G-d Care About Our Mitzvos?” in Vol. 1 of The Rational Believer series).
Then comes our next question: Why did the sages need to complicate the observance of Judaism well beyond what the Torah laid out? Couldn’t we just stick with biblical Judaism? This question comes from a general misunderstanding of Judaism and religion as a whole.
What is the purpose of Judaism? Many people mistakenly think that life is about living in this world and the Mitzvos are merely “add-ons” and “good things to do” while living a normal mundane physical lifestyle. But that’s wrong—very wrong. We have a purpose in this world and our entire living is for the purpose of fulfilling that mission and goal. Living is not a means of its own (it would be pretty sad if it was); it is a means to achieve what G-d wants us to do. Consequently, all actions that we do should, essentially, be for the sake of fulfilling that goal. In fact, the smartest thing one can do for themselves is to dedicate their entire life to spirituality and G-d. The reason we don’t dedicate our entire life is not because there’s no need to. Rather it is because it is too hard for us to do so and we are often too lazy. The Torah teaches us this point multiple times by telling us to love the Lord with all our heart etc.[i] If one genuinely loves G-d, then there’s no conceivable way to complain about “too many” laws. The more the love—the more dedication and devotion.
As explained in chapter “Do We Have Free Will?” in Vol. 4 of The Rational Believer series, the idea of Judaism is that everyone does the most Mitzvos possible on their level. Everyone has different battlegrounds depending on their circumstances in life. The common denominator is that everyone’s goal is to max-out their potentials. A direct expression of complete love and dedication is the upmost care and adherence to the most minor details.
This purpose of Judaism was no different in the days of antiquity when Judaism was primarily centered around biblical agricultural laws. The purpose then was to completely dedicate your life to the Lord with every possible tool of connection to G-d (i.e. Mitzvos). The purpose now remains the same: dedicate our lives to the Lord with every possible tool of connection to G-d. Yes, nowadays there are different and more tools (i.e. more sophisticated rabbinic laws)—but the purpose is essentially the same. Jews of ancient times were not exempt from dedicating their lives to G-d.
Perhaps they had less technical actions and responsibilities because their primary battleground was to maintain the uniquely Jewish belief of monotheism at a time when such beliefs were unconceivable by the surrounding cultures. Adding responsibility of technical actions in addition to their already struggling battle in belief would be far too straining on the Israelite population.
After this understanding one may only wonder what credibility the question raised at first contains. If the intent of Mitzvos are to show our commitment to G-d, what difference, then, should there be if one uses this tool or that tool. It is not our concern which tools to use; our job is to just use the tools given to us by the sages, to whom the authority was given. Well then, if the idea is all about commitment, why must this and this specific law be kept—let any details be observed? The answer is simple. The emphasis on those specific details are in themselves a part of the commitment. Observing the specific laws that He laid out show that you are truly dedicated to Him. On the contrary, deciding your own detailed laws would be serving yourself—not G-d.
Is this answer suggesting that the sages could add whatever more “details” and tools they want without any boundaries? Not quiet. The new laws that are added are added in response to a development in the Jewish world. For example, in response to weakness of Shabbos observance due to ignorance in the laws of Shabbos, the sages legislated pre-cautions that would simplify the status of a specific act on Shabbos by categorically prohibiting it. However, they cannot legislate laws that are beyond the general populace’s ability to keep. The reason for that is that rabbinic laws shouldn’t become “cheap” by people giving-up on its performance.
Did the sages fail in that regard? Looking at today’s Jewish world one might be inclined to say so. We must remember, though, that up until 300 years ago all Jews remained religious despite all the “burdens” of rabbinic laws. Thus, the recent drift away from Judaism doesn’t seem to be the result of rabbinic add-ons. The Reform and Conservative movements are a direct result of modern Enlightment and blaming it on the rabbis’ extra burdening laws is no good excuse. This would perhaps explain why Conservative and particularly Reform have also chosen to negate biblical commandments as well.
Personally, I do understand those who complain that the sages overdid the enactments. But leaving that question aside, how do we deal with this issue (granting that it actually is an issue)? Abandoning those laws is certainly not a clever idea as doing so would create a vacuum that would suck us into abandoning more and more of our religion and tradition. This is the vacuum that the Conservative and Reform movements got sucked into.
However, be as it may, we are commanded to listen to the laws of the sages—whether or not we find them to have been smart laws. One thing is certain: if one genuinely cares about the survival of Judaism, then they shouldn’t bash the sages for making “too many” laws that burden our religion. Mocking the rabbis can only cause damage to Judaism. So, let us keep the rabbinic laws whether or not we believe it was beneficial for Judaism as a whole or not. Because once they were legislated, there is no turning back.
It should be noted that many recent customs were normalized in the Orthodox community as a response to the development of the enlightenment movement and Western culture. The outside world used to be much less tempting, especially thanks to the ghetto and anti-Semitism in general that made the Jew feel comfortable only within his community. But after the collapse of the ghetto and the emergence of acceptance and Western culture, many Jewish youth were attracted to the fun of the outside world. As a result, measures were taken to insulate the Orthodox communities from the outside world. These measures included a standardized dress code and rejection of any secular entertainment material. Although these aren’t Halachic implementations, they are for the most part healthy practices—if not overdone and overemphasized.
 Eruvin is the laws of creating a private domain via sticks and strings. It is used for carrying items on Shabbos from one domain to another, which would have otherwise been prohibited. We use eruvin as an example for rabbinic laws that are seemingly so trivial and insignificant yet so much focus is put on them.
[i] E.g. Deuteronomy 6:3.