The long form of the Rede is traditional, at least in the sense of the term which means "I think I've covered up all traces that I made it up last Tuesday". It appears to be a collection of law and lore which would apply to at least one line of Witches. In particular, the line from which came one Lady Gwen, who founded the New England Coven of Traditional Witches (NECTW).
And since the long form was not written as part of the Gardnerian tradition or of any tradition that spun off from it, there is considerable debate as to whether it's binding in any way on all Witches, or even on any Witches outside NECTW.
Nevertheless, since so many modern Witches put great stock in following the Rede, it's useful to examine this work closely and see what we can find. First, let's distinguish between the "long form" of the Rede, a poem of twenty-six couplets which is quoted here, and the "short form" which is simply the last line, "An it harm none, do what thou will". (The short form, by the way, is part of Gardnerian and related traditions, and may thus be considered binding upon them, though what this may mean is well worth discussing.)
The term "rede" means "counsel" or "advice". Right from the start, we see that it's not a Wiccan form of the Ten Commandments. You need not bind yourself to obey every letter of the Rede, short form or long form, in order to be a "True Witch". But there are laws stated and implied in the Rede, which are there for a reason. The reason is that they work.
There has been considerable discussion over whether the Rede is law for all Witches, or for all Pagans, or even for all people. Declaring oneself not bound by the Rede has been suggested as equivalent to declaring oneself not bound by the laws of physics.
I think the Rede is an expression not so much of the laws of physics as laws of sociology.
No one person designed any set of laws. This is something scholars have pretty much agreed upon. Instead, all systems of social laws have evolved as people have worked out ways to deal with problems one at a time.
When enough decisions had been made, people would try to work out rules that seemed to fit the decisions that had been made. When enough of these rules had been made, more rules would be made to try to organize them. Finally, any society winds up with an elaborate system of laws and rules.
The phenomenon is known as "spontaneous order" and applies to systems of law, market systems, languages, and biology. The Rede is a law of sociology to the extent that it embodies sets of rules that have withstood the test of time. If you choose to go against the advice it presents, you have a very good chance of selecting a path that won't work as well as the time-tested one.
This is not to say that a different set of laws can't work. Nor is it to say that a different set of laws won't work as well as or better than the Rede does. Given the right circumstances, the Rede will fail miserably, and some other set of laws will be supremely successful.
But the Rede embodies principles that have been hammered out over centuries, and is less likely to lead one astray than can a law that was pieced together last week.
So how can the Rede fail? It demands mature application. The very term "rede" says as much. It is a series of suggestions, which you must apply in light of the circumstances of your own life. Given good and sufficient reason, you can "violate" any term of the Rede, without breaking it -- because it's not a commandment.
Wicca is a grown-up religion, and it assumes that its adherents will have enough maturity to use their powers wisely. Each Witch, particularly once a certain level of initiation is attained, is essentially autonomous. Each Witch decides the course of his life and makes his own decisions based on his own judgement.
But self-government won't work without self discipline. The Rede fails utterly when applied to people who lack this self-discipline. Freedom is the opportunity to take responsibility for one's own actions. The Rede grants this freedom, and in turn places the responsibility for a Witch's actions entirely on the shoulders of that Witch.
~ Karl Lembke
Used with permission