Tag Archives: morality

Parashat B’chukotai

This final week of Leviticus is called “The Sabbath of Blessing” – a euphemistic reference to the content of the Torah portion, the curses said to await Israel if it fails to keep God’s commandments. The logic is as simple as it is unpalatable: God controls history and punishes us for noncompliance with God’s will.

Over the years, this thinking has been applied wholesale to Jewish tragedy — whether the destruction of the Temple in antiquity or the Holocaust of our own time, Jewish suffering is explained as divine punishment for sin.

I can think of few ideas as pernicious as this one. It is morally reprehensible to blame the Holocaust’s victims for their own agony. And what kind of God would mete out such punishment anyway? Finally, the notion that God determines history runs counter to everything we know about both God and history. Imagining God as a puppet-master manipulating the Romans or the Nazis is a profanation of the very word “God.”

The euphemism “Sabbath of Blessing” is not the only way we mitigate the pain of this parashah. Customarily, we read its curses quietly and rapidly, to get them over with quickly. Some people even leave the synagogue so as not to hear them.

The normal explanation for this behavior is the belief that by minimizing attention to the curses we prevent their coming true. But just the opposite conclusion ought to follow, the Chatam Sofer says. If we take the warnings seriously, they should be recited especially loudly and clearly, to make everyone hear them and heed them!

Yet we continue to read the curses sotto voce anyway. And I think we should, not because we superstitiously believe we thereby avoid their consequences, but because the very idea of God bringing curses upon us is so reprehensible that we slur over the verses that purport to say it. It is an embarrassment to God to imagine that God tweaks history to kill Jews – or anyone else, for that matter. No wonder we prefer downplaying the reading as much as possible.

The clear and evident point of the curses is to instill fear of God, an obvious consequence of hearing them read, if you believe they describe reality. If we no longer think that way, however, we need to redefine what we mean by “fear of God.” Here we can turn to Nehemia Polen’s discussion of Esh Kodesh, the sermons of Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto.

Shapira saw first-hand the tortures endured under the Nazis; fear of punishment was all around him all the time; yet he hardly preached associating God with the Nazis! Having to face up to the theology that assumed the hand of God in history, he concluded that “fear of divine punishment,” is just a lower understanding of a loftier goal: attaining the awe that comes from comprehending “God’s grandeur.”

The curses of our parashah came from a time when imagining God as a micromanager of history was the best way to enforce the lesson of a God far enough beyond our ken to evoke awe. In our time, we have other ways to imagine that. How about the sheer force of numbers: our own earth that goes back 4,000,000,000 years; or the solar system that is 14,000,000,000 years old!

The awesome recognition of a God beyond ourselves is especially necessary today, given the possibility that we are likely, otherwise, to imagine we are God – and to do whatever we want, even to the point of destroying the world we live in.

So we should happily hear the curses muttered through at breakneck speed this year, not because they otherwise might come to pass, but to remind us that God does not actually manage history at all — in which case it must be true that we do. And we had better take that responsibility seriously before there is no history left to manage.


“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.