Tag Archives: biblical interpretation

Parashat Ki Teitsei

The weekly Haftarah is usually related to the Torah portion that it follows, but this week’s Haftarah, Isaiah 54: 1-10, seems different. It is the fifth of seven readings that began after Tisha B’av, as part of a rising crescendo of faith in a better time to come – not a bad lesson these days, with renewed reminders of global warming, genocide in Darfur, and the bankruptcy of American cities.

Instead of Isaiah, Jews once upon a time read Zechariah 9, an even more explicit promise of hope, because of its express guarantee of a messiah who will save us from the terrors of history. Zechariah 9:9 contains the familiar picture of the messiah on a white donkey, an image borrowed by the Gospel of Matthew, who has Jesus ride a donkey for his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Perhaps, say scholars, it was precisely the Christian use of this verse that prompted the Rabbis to replace the Zechariah reading with the Isaiah passage that we now have.

Well, perhaps. But is that really the way things work? When Christians borrow a Jewish image or idiom, do we Jews abandon it?

I doubt it: For one thing, the image of a messiah riding a donkey shows up in medieval Haggadah illustrations, so we never gave up the image entirely. For another, there is the motsi – the blessing we say over bread. The Talmud interprets “bread” here messianically – the bread God will provide in time to come. Similarly, in the birkat hamazon, the grace after meals, where we praise God for feeding the whole world, it is not that God already does so, but that someday, we trust, God will. Christian theology co-opted the messianic symbolism of bread too: among other things, the Lord’s Prayer requests, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Echoing the Rabbis, Church Fathers call that “the bread of the Kingdom-come,” not the ordinary stuff we hold in our hands or put in our stomachs. Bread also became the central substance of the Eucharist, the ritual that most defines classical Christian faith. Jews didn’t stop saying the motsi or the birkat hamazon on that account.

But wait. Didn’t we drop their messianic meaning?

You might think so, because of how few Jews know what that meaning is. Our ignorance, however, is no reaction to Christianity. It is part of the mistaken notion that no self-respecting modern Jew can entertain matters of religious belief — the very promises that make religion worthwhile in the first place. Most Jews who recite mealtime prayers do so purely out of habit, sometimes mindlessly mumbling through them; others, seeing no point in them, let them lapse – why not, if they have no transcendent significance.

We hardly need to worry about fighting Christian interpretation, which, in any event, is usually just our own, transferred to a Christian context. Our problem today is the ease with which we have settled for practice without meaning — the way we have given up intimations of transcendence.

The seven Haftarah readings of which this week’s passage is the fifth culminates in the promise of Rosh Hashanah: the hope that God’s purposes will someday be realized worldwide – that’s what the shofar is supposed to herald. In this week’s reading, God assures us, “My love will never leave you. My covenant of peace shall never be removed.”

Should we just mumble this through, the way we do the motsi? Or are we willing to consider the possibility that we are born into a world where love can dominate, where we are in covenant with the divine, and where evil and want just might slowly but inexorably be expunged from human experience?

I have trouble believing these things every hour of every day. Who doesn’t? But the Haftarah, the motsi and the birkat hamazon are prayers. Prayer is precisely the medium that punctuates the humdrum and the harrowing with the poetry of possibility.

Ritual is the regularized affirmation of order that matters; Inherited rituals are reminders of the shapes other people saw. Our ancestors saw patterns we should not want to do without. Even the lowly motsi should be a metaphoric means of dreaming in league with God.

Parashat Ekev

The good news is our parashah’s promise, “If you obey these rules… God will love and bless you.” The bad news is that “these rules” include the commandment to destroy the Canaanites “showing them no pity.” Does God really revel in the wholesale destruction of others?

“Yes,” say biblical literalists, “If the Bible says it, it must be so; the Bible is inerrant.” But the Bible is quite “errant,” since as much as it is God talking, it is also us hearing, and the people who wrote it down many centuries ago couldn’t hear more than their age allowed. The point of ongoing Jewish commentary is to help later ages hear better – and our commentators disassociate “these rules” from their original military context, insisting, that what God really wants is love.

The Malbim quotes Maimonides (Rambam) who differentiates two kinds of love. Love of God, as commanded in the Sh’ma (“You shall love Adonai your God”) is exemplified with mitzvot that have no earthly use, like putting a m’zuzah on our door. True, a m’zuzah may benefit us – reminding us, perhaps, of the sanctity of home — but we affix it just because God commands it: as when a loving parent says, “Do me a favor,” and we just do it. This love, says Rambam, gains us nothing here on earth. We are rewarded in the world to come.

The second kind of love is what human beings owe each other. Not all that long ago, it was the norm for people in power to enslave or even slaughter others without compunction. Maimonides reminds us that God rejected that behavior, by expressly prohibiting murder, rape, and even just ripping off an anonymous customer who wanders into our store. God rewards this love also in the world to come, but unlike the m’zuzah kind of mitzvah, showing love to human beings benefits us in the here and now, with a just and safe society.

So some mitzvot show love of God; others, love of neighbor. Neighborly love gets subdivided into prohibitions that entail physical pain (torture) or death (murder); and those that entail only monetary damages (cheating customers). In the evolutionary scheme of things, the first category enters our awareness sooner than the second. When word reached us recently of slave-like conditions in Chinese labor camps that make goods bound for America, we recoiled. Ongoing persecution in North Africa led this year to a reaffirmation of the1993 UN Convention Against Torture. Increasingly, that is to say, countries of conscience recognize slavery, torture, and murder as inhuman.

The evils of financial sin, by contrast, have barely dented our awareness. Now that we know how Chinese workers are being brutalized, will we protest their conditions by boycotting their goods? Hardly. Other than degree, there is no difference between an average citizen saving money by buying merchandise made by slaves, and an unscrupulous business ripping off billions from the public. Both are instances of economic evil.

How fascinating, then, to find Rashi calling economic moral prohibitions, “light commandments that we walk all over,” because compared to murder and mayhem, they seem miniscule.

The literal reading of Torah to allow mass murder and torture was put to rest with rabbinic interpretation centuries ago. But we still “walk all over” the prohibition against immoral commerce. And the two are related: if it cuts consumer prices and raises corporate earnings, even “ordinary” torture in China will start looking not so bad.

Turning a blind eye to economic moral shortcuts contaminates society until no society is left. Relaxing our fight on the moral frontier of finance threatens the moral heartland with erosion.

B’ha’alotcha: On Ritual, Religion, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Freud did not have our sedra specifically in mind when he wrote his treatises on religion. He would have pointed to its demand that the Passover sacrifice be done “in accordance with all its rules and rites” as evidence of his claim that religion is a caricature of obsessive-compulsive neurosis.

To be sure, it is a ritual; and the very nature of ritual is that it must be done “just right.” But that was, of course, Freud’s very point.

Still, Freud was not altogether objective in his critique. Lots of things, not just religion, are done “just right,” including Freud’s own writings which follow very strict canons of scientific research and argument. In the government of Freud’s Vienna, everything followed exact bureaucratic specification. And if Freud had consulted his own physician, lawyer, or accountant, he would have noticed all due attention being paid to detail.

As to ritual, whatever academic conferences Freud attended were nothing, if not ritually determined as to such things as who gave papers to whom; and who responded and how. Indeed, the psychoanalytic method has itself been described as a highly ritualized process. It was not, therefore, ritual that Freud found objectionable so much as it was religion, which he had rejected long before he applied his psychological theory to it. Freud’s commitment to scientific secularism had no room for religion, and as time went on, Freud developed theories that justified his objections.

But Freud was a genius and a doggedly accurate observer of human behavior; he was not, therefore, altogether wrong. Sometimes religious ritual does approximate obsessive-compulsive disorder. An example is the way some medieval Jews interpreted the phrase, “in accordance with all its rules and rites.” The 11th-century rabbi, Joseph Tov Elem (or Bonfils, his French surname), incorporated the line into a pre-Passover synagogue poem that highlighted the importance of attending to every detail of Passover preparation. One verse of that larger composition still concludes our Haggadah: “The Passover celebration has concluded appropriately,” we say, “in accordance with all its rules and rites.”

Bonfils had internalized an attitude that pervaded Christian circles in his day: the idea that religious rites (like baptism and Eucharist) achieve their intended impact as an automatic consequence of punctilious attention to detail. By contrast, skipping a single step or doing anything out of order renders the ritual null and void, so at roughly the same time that Bonfils was writing his poem, other rabbis were developing mnemonics to guide Seder leaders in doing everything “just right.” We still have one such mnemonic today: Kadesh urchatz, by Samuel ben Solomon of Falaise. We chant it as the Seder begins just to anticipate what follows, but originally, it was used to guarantee that the Seder not be rendered worthless on account of an error in order.

In its time, this was indeed an obsessive-compulsive attitude, but it is not typical of the mainstream Jewish approach to ritual over the years. Even “in accordance with all its rules and rites” was interpreted to mean more than an obsessive concern for sacrificial detail. Both Rashi and Ramban, for example, think it also entails linking the ritual acts of the Passover sacrifice to the non-ritual aspects of the Passover message — eating unleavened bread, for instance, as a recollection of the haste with which Jews departed Egypt so long ago. Elsewhere, too, the impact of halachic action is not normally believed to follow magically as a consequence of doing it flawlessly.

Of course we perform our rituals “properly.” Otherwise they would not be rituals. But everything that matters deeply to us gets done that way: arranging an anniversary evening, perfecting a golf swing, posing for an important photograph, creating a beautiful dinner: these are all examples of making sure that details do not get overlooked. Far from being obsessive-compulsive behavior, these are instances of artistic enterprise.

The lesson of it all — from the biblical Passover sacrifice to the Seder of today, and every other ritual we have as well — is that human beings have an artistic impulse at our very core. We describe God’s original act of creation as artistry; and we have been partners with God ever after. We love harmonized melodies, complementary color schemes, matching clothes, flowing language, and even coincidences that suggest patterns behind pure randomness. We should conclude (contra Freud) that while people can use ritual to further their own obsessive-compulsive needs, most of us appreciate it for its artistry — the means to express ourselves through what is graceful, elegant, beautiful, and profound.

B’har

Advocates of modern political and economic positions often look to the Bible for religious support — as if revelation some thousands of years ago should have anticipated the dilemmas of every age to come. This week’s portion, with its compelling laws of ownership, have therefore been mined by liberals and conservatives alike to defend their views.

Ardent socialists, for example, have cheered the idea of declaring every fiftieth (or Jubilee) year a time when land devolves upon the original owners, thereby prohibiting large landed interests from owning real estate in perpetuity. Equally ardent capitalists note the high value placed on private ownership in the first place. The Bible itself measures land value against the number of harvests to be realized before the Jubilee, thus recognizing due market value to guide investors. Land purchased in the first year of a fifty-year cycle is worth more than the same land purchased, say, just ten years before that cycle’s end.

To all of this, the modern collector of commentaries, Yehudah Nachshoni, reminds us that both socialism or capitalism are “concepts derived from modernity.” Readers can find support for both throughout the Torah, which, after all, was given long before Adam Smith or Karl Marx.

Not that Torah is irrelevant to modern concerns; but what it provides is a spiritual framework, not an economic one. Maimonides rightly observes (in his Guide, 3:38) that the laws of sabbatical and Jubilee years were given “to imply sympathy with our fellow human beings and to promote the wellbeing of humanity.”

Its essential claim is that all property — land first and foremost in an agrarian economy — belongs to God. By extension, we, the owners, also belong to God. Neither land nor people can be ravaged for personal gain.

To be sure, ecological concerns are inherent in laws that prevent abuse of land; the land is God’s after all, not ours, in the long run. But overall, the Torah’s concerns here are with issues of people, who are, as it were, tenants gifted with stewardship over goods that predated our coming into the world and will be here long after we die.

In biblical times, ownership of at least some plot of land was crucial, so the Torah makes each of us a landholder. We may sell our land if absolutely necessary, but not all of it — at least some residue of property must be retained lest the owner become completely destitute and become indentured to some other person.

In reality, indentured servitude did occur, of course — Torah’s regulations here are ideals, after all, and as such, were as subject to economic conditions as we are. So rabbinic regulation turned to conditions of indenture, as a consequence of the spiritual principle that we too belong to God — no less than the land does.

If we sell ourselves, in effect, as a matter of economic survival, our masters must recognize that they now have mere stewardship over us, until such time as we can revert to our original master, God. The entire Jewish story begins with the proclamation that God redeemed us from Egyptian slavery and says, “You are my servants” — not (say the rabbis) so that you should become “servants to other servants.” We may indeed, therefore, acquire masters for ourselves in respect to any manner of work, but insofar as we are God’s servants, “we have no power to sell ourselves into absolute servitude.”

Most obviously, our new masters may not make total serfs of us, subjugating us through hard labor — farekh, in Hebrew, the same word used to describe the work that taskmasters assigned the Israelites in Egypt. But the Rabbis apply it to even the smallest details — like asking servants to do unnecessary work just to keep them busy. We also may not give our workers assignments with no end in sight, like doing field work “until I return,” since the worker has no idea when that will be.

These rules, moreover, apply not just to Jews. The Torah has no modern concepts as clear cut as absolute particularism versus universalism; it had no concept of social rules that might apply to people completely beyond the reach of Jewish governmental structures. But it takes a universal turn when it applies these rules of common decency to everyone within the jurisdiction of Jews: not just Jews but resident aliens as well.

The Torah even worries about the spiritual condition of the master. Modern Orthodox master Isaac Breuer lived at the height of rampant capitalism and worried about the wealthy who deny that God owns everything and even live as if they too do not own everything because what they own actually owns them!

More important than the precise examples is the principle: the earth is God’s; all creation is God’s; we are part of creation; we are God’s as well. And in God’s scheme, we are all intended to get beyond Egyptian servitude so that regardless of economic conditions, we may not be reduced to have lives of indignity.

Tazri’a-M’tsora

Medically speaking, the biblical disease that is usually translated as “leprosy” (tsara’at) has nothing to do with slander (motsi shem ra). But our pre-scientific rabbinic ancestors connected the two as if they did. Tsara’at for them was like advanced and untreatable cancer for us. They deliberately associated the gravest threat to bodily health with character damage caused by the misuse of language, as if to say they were equivalent.

That decision should take our breath away. Our culture cares relatively little about damage we do through verbal abuse. Beyond taking adequate care to avoid lawsuits, we engage rather freely in speaking loosely of others.

Jewish law, by contrast, is nothing short of obsessive on the subject. It delineates three kinds of verbal abuse and insists that we cease and desist from each and every one: 1. We are forbidden to invent or pass on lies about people (motsi shem ra). 2. We may not even speak negatively about them regarding things that happen to be true (lashon hara)! 3. And even idle gossip (r’chilut) is forbidden, since gossip thrives on the objectionable, if not the downright sordid.

Clear distinctions among the three categories emerge only in the Middle Ages, where, for instance, the two great legalists Maimonides and Nachmanides argue whether lashon hara is its own classification or just a particularly heinous case of r’chilut. Until then, rabbinic writing frequently lumps them all together as just plain scurrilous talk, which insidiously eats away at a person’s good name and thereby causes injury. The Talmud goes so far as to say that “speaking lashon hara is like denying the existence of God.”

This, mind you, is for lashon hara — speaking evil of others, even if the charges are true! Why is even this lesser offense equivalent to, of all things, apostasy — pretty much the worst crime against God that the Jewish imagination can muster?

Our commentators are of no single opinion on the subject. One prominent example (attributed to Maimonides himself, among others) provides the slippery slope scenario. If we get used to speaking negatively about our own ordinary friends and acquaintances, it is only a matter of time until we do so even of people in authority, including those whose wisdom and way of life testify of God’s existence. We would thereby end up implicitly casting doubt on the most obvious human exemplars of God’s reality.

A better answer, I think, comes from a teaching attributed to the Chafetz Chaim, who is said to have cautioned against speaking lashon hara even of oneself. Discussion of lashon hara usually assumes that the prohibition is rooted in the damage that it causes. But what damage do we cause ourselves by owning up to our own negative character traits? Doesn’t Judaism demand we do just that? We call it t’shuvah (“repentance”)!

The Chafetz Chaim is, no doubt, thinking of people who go beyond proper <i.t'shuvah — people, that is, who habitually run themselves down. It is this constant negativity toward oneself that is forbidden — because being overly self-critical is a slight on God, the Creator who made us.

At stake is what we call religious anthropology, our doctrine of human nature. Judaism insists on seeing something divine in each and every one of us. In 1994, a singing group, “The Halo Benders,” released an album entitled, “God Don’t Make No Junk” — a title that has inspired hundreds of T-shirts, bumper stickers, web-site postings, and other forms of subtle protest against a society that teaches us that we are, overall, wanting.

We can understand the Chafetz Chaim as emphasizing the much earlier and specifically Jewish version of “God don’t make no junk.” It’s one thing to take honest stock of who we are; it’s quite another to run ourselves down all the time (even if the charges are mostly true) without simultaneously appreciating what is good, decent and even godly within us. The self-directed lashon hara of speaking overly negatively about ourselves ignores the reality of God that forms the essence of every living soul.

The implicit denial of God’s presence in any human being, even ourselves, is indeed the subtlest of apostasies. And it is a sin.

Parashat Mishpatim

Twice this week, we encounter Israel’s famous acceptance of responsibility at Sinai. The people first say, simply, “Whatever God says, we will do” (Exodus 24:3). Just a few lines later (24:7), they say, “Whatever God says, we will do and we will hear.”

Tradition has made much of these affirmations. For starters, they have been applied to two different moments in time: the first followed God’s demand that Israel prepare for revelation; the second refers to revelation itself.

Then too, the order of the verbs — first “we will do” and only then, “we will hear” — has attracted enormous commentary. Most interpreters have deduced the lesson that proper comprehension of God’s will flows only from the prior performance of it, not the other way around: that is, we do not first hear and then do; we do and only then do we hear.

But how could that be? “Something” had to have been heard to prompt the doing. The answer must be that, existentially speaking, what we hear at first is only a vague demand for action that must be tried out before we really understand it; in that sense, “we will do” really does come first; only out of doing, do we more fully grasp what was meant by the first hearing. Only then can we revisit the original hearing and rehear it for all that it entails.

Now we understand a lesser-noted difference — in the first promise, “Israel answered in a single voice.” Not so the second time. There, the unanimity of voice is missing. They had no trouble agreeing with one voice that they would prepare for the covenant. But they were of more than a single opinion as to what that covenant entailed, since they knew that it would mean different things for each of them, and only after trying it, would each person know what it might mean personally.

The idea that we try out what we think God wants runs counter to the usual understanding of religion, which, we assume, is black or white, totally objective, clear and distinct from the outset. Nowhere else do we suffer from this childlike delusion. Congress makes rules but then changes them, as exigency demands. Even the Supreme Court changes its mind on what exactly we mean, by, say, “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Sure, we promise enduring love to the ones we marry — but the naivete of courting gives way to the experience of actual marriage, when we understand better what true love demands. Yes, we pledge allegiance to the flag — but then we alter the kind of America for which we believe the flag must stand: the “manifest destiny” of the days when Americans thought the entire continent belonged to them is long gone; our inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness means different things in different eras.

Why should this ever-changing landscape of understanding not apply also to religion? Israel could speak with one united voice when the only thing at stake was preparing to receive the covenant. The covenant’s exact terms, however, were another matter. Everyone agreed to commit to it, but they knew that the “it” in question would change, as experience kept revising the understanding of what God had asked for.

Religion gets short shrift in America today because the idea of utter changelessness is blatantly childish. Until we treat religion as a fully adult thing, we can expect religious loyalty to falter. The only way forward is to reassert what Torah here implies: we Jews do agree to do what God wants; but not with a single voice, because we know our understanding must change with personal experience. We hear things differently as we age through life. And God, who made us, knows that very well.

Parashat Bo

There is something magic about midnight, as any child who has read “Cinderella” can tell you. It is the witching hour when imagination fails, when radiance turns into pumpkins, when dreams die fast.

Edgar Allen Poe expresses this resonance of despair in his poem, “The Raven,” the tale of a man whose yearning for his lost love Lenore is dashed by a “ghastly grim and ancient raven” who inserts his way into his home “once upon a midnight dreary” with the one-word prophecy, “Nevermore.” Never mind this life; there is also no life after death, no heavenly bliss where the two lovers may someday find one another again. “Is there no balm in Gilead?” asks the man, citing Jeremiah 8:22, no hope whatever? The raven’s answer comes unhesitatingly: “Nevermore.”

Poe’s midnight message chills us to the bone. We have all awakened in the dark and deep of night and thought for sure the nightmares that disturb our sleep are real, that “nevermore” will we find hope, love, health or joy; that a new day will never dawn.

It is around midnight too when the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father appears; and when Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman visits horror upon unwitting travelers. Nothing good can happen in what we call “the dead of night.”

How interesting, then, to find this week that God chooses “around midnight” for the angel of death to slay Egypt’s first born. From Israel’s perspective, however, this is deliverance, so ever after, Jewish lore associates midnight with good things happening. A traditional Haggadah poem carries the refrain, “It happened about midnight.” At midnight Jacob wrestled with the angel; at midnight Daniel was saved from the lion’s den. Baal Haturim concludes, “The Holy One performs miracles for the righteous — at midnight.”

Christianity too adopted this positive view of midnight. Since God had saved the Israelites then, the New Testament pictured prisoners breaking free from a Roman jail on account of the midnight prayers of Paul and Silas (Acts 16:2); and in 1849, Unitarian minister Edmund Sears wrote the Christmas carol, “It came upon the midnight clear.”

A novel touch arrived with the spread of coffee throughout the Mediterranean in the sixteenth century. With Jews newly wired by heavy doses of Turkish coffee, kabbalistic masters converted midnight hope into ritual, alongside the promise that midnight was especially apt to find God’s presence among us. Mystical adepts would arise at midnight for a tikkun chatsot, a set of readings intended to bringing about a better world.

But kabbalists were building on more ancient lore: Psalm 119:62, which had King David say, “I arise at midnight to thank You.”

Chanukah, Thanksgiving, and War

As I sat down to write this, it was Thanksgiving in America, and Chanukah was on its way; but the big news was the uneasy truce just announced in Israel. While the rest of New York watched the Thanksgiving Day Parade, therefore, my thoughts turned to this latest round of war and to Chanukah, which commemorates yet another failed attempt to destroy us.

The war that gave us Chanukah was described in I and II Maccabees, whence we get the heroic tales of Judah and his brothers, a priestly family called Hasmoneans. Like all wars, that one too claimed innocent victims in abundance, but eventually, the Hasmonean army prevailed and went on to establish only the second Jewish commonwealth in a thousand years (the first had been the kingdom of David and his descendants).

Not all wars end that well, however, so even though I am not one to overstate the victimhood of Jews – the lachrymose theory of Jewish history, as historian Salo Baron named it — something moved me, as I left for the airport, to take along Yeven M’tsulah, Nathan of Hannover’s chronicle of the 1648 slaughter of Ukrainian Jews by Cossack leader Bogdan Chmielnicki. This was no “Happy Chanukah” tale in the end! We had no Jewish army at all; the Chmielnicki massacres left their mark for centuries as the Shoah of their time.

“I’ve recorded it,” Nathan explains, “so that people can compute the day of their parents’ death and be able to mourn them appropriately.” That’s the best he can offer: proper mourning.

Today’s war in Gaza should be viewed against the backdrop of these two existential bookends: Chmielnicki on one hand and Chanukah on the other. With Chmielnicki, we were helpless; with Chanukah, we were not. Herzl founded Zionism so that we might put Chmielnicki behind us. He even envisioned the Jews of his Jewish State becoming “a new breed of Maccabee.” They would direct just the third Jewish commonwealth of all time.

War is war. All wars randomly maim and erase lives; and all wars are political; there is nothing pure about them. The Hasmoneans were embroiled in internecine civil war as well, one priestly family against another. The Hasmonean chroniclers paint the anti-war party as selfish collaborators and assimilationist idolaters, but they were really just good men and women who saw things differently. The problem is, you never know until after wars are over how they will turn out, so good people are properly divided on whether a war should happen; and if so, with what force, for what duration, and to what end.

This time, in Gaza, war was necessary, it seems, given Hamas intransigence against a Jewish state and the stockpile of fire power raining down on Jewish settlements. Thank God this looks more like Chanukah than Chmielnicki. Most Americans did not give thanks on this Thanksgiving Day for being spared a holocaust. Perhaps at least some Jews did. We have, I hope, put well behind us the day when enemies could slaughter us at will.

I now read Yeven M’tsulah as a historical memory of the way things used to be. I read I and II Maccabees as the way they are again: Jewish power to prevail against forces larger than our own; but also the terrible fact that we are still threatened by those forces, and the stunning reality of what war does in crippling, maiming, burning, and slaughtering, all around.

There is yet another way that we have left the world of Nathan of Hannover behind us. Nathan comforted Chmielnicki’s Jewish victims by assuring them that God somehow desired their martyrdom al kiddush hashem, “for the sanctification of God’s name” — an idea that goes back to the Maccabean era, took root after the wars against Rome, and flourished especially in the Middle Ages when Jews were powerless to protect themselves. With Chanukah too, we chose officially to recall God’s role: the miracle of oil when the war was over, and the conviction that God fought on our side, giving us victory over a power much greater than ourselves. Long before Adam Smith usurped the term to explain the economy, the invisible hand of history was held to be God.

Nowadays, we quite properly believe that God has no hand at all in the wars we fight. We are on our own, having to rally political support, explain our position to the world, build Israel’s military capacity, and then agonize over when and how to use it. Small comfort, that. But it’s better than writing another Yeven M’tsulah with nothing to offer beyond the proper dates for remembering our dead.

We Stand Together: But For What?

Rosh Hashanah follows hard upon Atem Nitzavim (“You stand…”), a Torah reading so compelling that some synagogues read it again on Yom Kippur, as a reminder of what really matters in the world. It is part of Moses’ final speech, given to the Israelites as they finally reach the Promised Land. They are not all that far from where Abraham himself first set foot upon the place. Abraham was guaranteed progeny as numerous as the stars above his head and the sand beneath his feet. The progeny have returned.

“You stand” (atem nitzavim) says Moses, “all of you, to enter the covenant of Adonai your God.”

The word “stand” (nitzavim) reminds us of Psalm 82:1, where it is used similarly of God. “Adonai stands [nitzav] in the divine council (adat el) to do justice.” Medieval commentator Ibn Ezra identifies this “divine council” as Israel, God’s people who are charged with justice. God and Israel stand together then, in the pursuit of justice as the essence of the human march through history. We, Israel, stand up together, “all of us” to confirm the covenant. God stands up with us to confirm that the covenant we enact is devoted to the decency and nobility whence all justice flows.

There is no authentic Jewish existence without this commitment to decency and nobility. According to another commentator, the Maharam, it is the Jewish Land itself that guarantees united Jewish loyalty to this end. And indeed, one reads the Zionist record with pride in that regard. Almost without exception, our Zionist forebears argued vociferously, but with visionary passion for a Jewish state that stood for decency and nobility.

By contrast, passion for decency and nobility are singularly lacking today. The squabbles that make and break the Knesset coalitions are purely political: the self-serving pursuit of power, which is to say, doing what one can rather than what one should. In addition, so many Israeli politicians have abused the public trust. A 2005 study measured the extent to which people associate their government with corruption. Of the 18 countries surveyed, Israel topped the list in discontent!

It is not just politics that deepens suspicions of moral decay. We are also becoming more and more accustomed to outrageously indecent pronouncements from extremist circles in Israel. Diaspora Jews can hardly clean up Israeli politics; but we can shout to the rooftops when patent racism and inequality are preached as if they were Judaism. The Haftarah that accompanies the Torah reading of Nitzavim proclaims, “For the sake of Zion, I will not be silent; for the sake of Jerusalem, I will not be still.” The speaker of these lines is variously identified as Israel or as God — both of us stand together, after all; both of us should be standing up for decency. I suspect God is, but are we? Jews need not agree on everything, but almost universally, we all do recognize and despise blatant racism, for example. We all should be saying so.

The divine council of Psalm 82 is a virtual thing, Jewish voices everywhere protesting the need (again from Psalm 82) “to defend the weak and fatherless, vindicate the afflicted and the poor, rescue the weak and the poor from the grip of the wicked.” On Rosh Hashanah, just around the corner, say the Rabbis, “all who come into the world” (kol ba’ei olam) stand before God in judgment. We are all God’s people. We are charged with decency to all. Come Rosh Hashanah, we will stand with God at our side to ask if we are worthy of the covenant. If we do not speak up for a Judaism that values elemental human decency, the answer will be “No.”

“Despoiling the Egyptians”: An Exercise In Moral Logic

The  sedra for this week (Bo) features one of the most troubling episodes in all of Torah: the so-called despoiling of the Egyptians. Back in Exodus 3, the Israelites are promised that they will leave Egypt not just with their freedom but with great wealth. “You shall strip the Egyptians bare,” goes the promise, in colloquial English of today.

Sure enough, this week the Israelites prepare to leave by “borrowing” objects of silver and gold from their neighbors. Borrowing? Not exactly. Everybody knows, that they are leaving Egypt for good with no intention of returning. The Egyptians comply because “God disposed them favorably” toward their erstwhile Jewish slaves (verse 11:3). How so? They repented of the evil they had done as slave masters, says Ramban. But let’s face it: it didn’t hurt any that the Egyptians were frightened to death by the plagues.

This is a significant moral dilemma. When the Egyptians had the upper hand, they impoverished the Jews. Now that the tables are turned, should the Jews then impoverish the Egyptians? Ibn Ezra dismisses the whole issue by insisting that God who owns the entire world can rightfully allot it to whomever He wishes. End of story. But most commentators cannot buy that. Surely God is subject to the same moral law as that which binds human beings.

So commentators try to get the Israelites off the moral hook by observing that the Israelites “borrowed” the Egyptians’ goods only at Moses’ insistence. They were not looters, that is, not a mob intent on extortion. The Israelites requested their neighbors possessions against their own will, actually – purely because Moses commanded them to do so.

Still, what moral rationale could Moses have had? Following the Talmud (Sanhedrin 91a), most commentators decide that Moses was only claiming the wages owed from years of unpaid slavery. This was not vengeance; it was justice. Ethical law prohibits an underclass from using its sudden turn of fortune to rob former masters. But Moses (a prophet, after all) imposed a higher order of moral logic than what ethical law permits.

Ever the philosopher and legalist, Maimonides thinks through the consequences of this position. In his code (Hilkhot Y’sodei Torah, Chapter 9) he comes to the astonishing conclusion that “someone who is known to be a prophet” may temporarily override the laws of Torah. But think about it: are we really ready to permit our leaders, even temporarily, to override morality? They would have to be recognized prophets of course but how can we know for sure that someone is a prophet?

Maimonides’ prime example — Elijah who offers a sacrifice on Mount Carmel despite the Torah’s mandate to do so only in Jerusalem — is talmudic (Yeb 90b). But Elijah’s case is different. Whatever he did, he did himself. Convinced of an emergency situation, he acted on his own — he did not induce others to sacrifice outside the Temple. And the rule of Torah that he dismissed was not a moral one. It impacted God, perhaps, but not other human beings.

The case of Moses is more difficult because Moses instructed others to disobey a precept and because the precept in question was moral. Can just anyone, then, be a modern-day Moses?

That frightening possibility may underlie Maimonides’ insistence that Moses was utterly unique. The Torah concludes by observing that no prophet has ever arisen like Moses, and Maimonides raises that observation to the status of being one of his 13 principles of faith. In principle, then, a prophet may instruct others to countermand basic moral logic. In practice, however, we are wary of anyone who tries to do so. No one, after all, is like Moses.

The logic attributed to Moses is not wrong: considerations of justice should (and do) guide our thinking about compensation for slaves – – that has been our position regarding the Sho’ah. But we arrive at that conclusion by going through the institution of law, not by going around it.

In the end, the Torah is not in heaven, Maimonides reminds us. It remains the responsibility of human beings to interpret it. But interpretation is the very stuff of law not its dismissal. In the era before Sinai, Moses was the singular embodiment of legal interpretation. He had the right, therefore, to instruct the Israelites to take what was properly theirs. But no one has arisen like Moses, and we are beyond him now.

The sure sign of civilization, Judaism insists, is the rule of law. Societies stand or fall on the balance of justice and mercy with which their understanding of law operates. We insist as well on morality but entrust it to the complexity of such properly functioning legal systems.