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Day 2: Is Social Justice the Soul of Judaism?

From: Daniel ‘Mobius’ Sieradski To: Steven I. Weiss Subject: Navel Gazing Steven, Adolf Hitler once wrote, "Conscience is a Jewish invention. It is a blemish, like circumcision." One of the Jewish people’s core arrogances is our embrace of this Hitlerian … Read More

By / January 16, 2007

From: Daniel ‘Mobius’ Sieradski To: Steven I. Weiss Subject: Navel Gazing

Steven,

Adolf Hitler once wrote, "Conscience is a Jewish invention. It is a blemish, like circumcision."

One of the Jewish people’s core arrogances is our embrace of this Hitlerian notion that we somehow invented morality. Leaving aside the fact that Hammurabi’s codes predate the Torah by some six hundred years, the idea itself contradicts one of the most fundamental Jewish tenets—that everything comes from God.

However, while Hammurabi may have given the Babylonians laws against murder, theft, and adultery, just as we have in Judaism, the fundamental difference is that Hammurabi’s laws came from his own subjective view of morality. Judaism introduced the notion that the only valid morality is an objective one, prescribed by God.

The Torah could very well be the work of Israelite aristocrats who enshrined their preferred morality, using God’s wrath as a mechanism of enforcement. But I see Torah as a divining rod that leads us to an inner wellspring of knowledge and provides a language and symbology for engaging with that knowledge. As Rav Kook wrote,

All our endeavors in Torahitic and scientific studies are only to clarify whatever comprehensible words it is possible to distill from this divine voice that always reverberates in our inner ear. We do this to be able to present them to ourselves and to others in a form that is conducive to action and to an ordered discipline of study.

In this sense, even if composed by man, I see Torah as the documentation of God’s word—documention that emerged from a communal conversation.

Whether these laws were enshrined 5,000 years ago by Moses, 2,500 years ago by Ezra, or by Solomon, the Tannaim, et al, in every case they are a radical departure from the mainstream behavior of the time.

Consider how incredibly progressive Judaism was in the context of its creation. Yes, the Torah permits slavery, but it also demands you treat your slaves like family and release them after seven years (Americans didn’t even do that in the 1800s!). Yes, Torah can be demeaning towards women, but it also provides women with conjugal rights and other privileges, while depriving men of the same. Yes, the
Torah orders the death penalty for homosexuals, but our rabbis teach that if a Sanhedrin ordered an execution once in 70 years, it should be considered an evil court. Yes, there are hostilities towards non-Jews present in our sources, but there are also statements contradicting those hostilities throughout. And yes, the Torah advocates genocide, but only with the intent of eliminating child sacrifice and similar injustices. For every example you brought, I can find a counter-example which states the very opposite.

Judaism also challenged the notion that an autocrat could be the sole arbiter of justice. Instead it established a somewhat imperfect civil democracy which relied upon popular consent—rather than coercion—for its legitimacy. Which returns me to "the divining rod." The real question is not whether we’re obligated to pursue justice, but rather whether man can define what is just and moral for his own self. The answer to that question is ultimately more complex, but gets to the heart of this issue.

Nachmanides says the Torah leaves all sorts of room for us to be navel (“disgusting”) while operating "with the permission of the Torah.” Torah sets the bar relatively low: It is the minimum of what is required of us in our human interactions. Yet we have other sources, such as Kedoshim Tihiyu, which instruct us to strive for greater holiness. We are obligated to strive beyond the letter of the law to achieve the highest ideal.

Nachmanides wrote,

Initially, God said that you should observe the laws and statutes which He had commanded you. Now He says that, with respect to what He has not commanded, you should likewise take heed to do the good and the right in His eyes, for He loves the good and the right. And this is a great matter. For it is impossible to mention in the Torah all of a person’s actions towards his neighbors and acquaintances, all of his commercial activity, and all social and political institutions.

Thus, I find that Judaism puts the power into our own hands to determine what is just and moral, by giving us a framework to engage with the concept of morality. It speaks more in terms of intentionality than "right" and "wrong." In doing so, it causes one to question the motivations behind their premises and actions. Furthermore, it does this in the context of a communal conversation that revolves around shared principles and a common language.

We are each driven to pursue an inner truth that is, perhaps, ultimately subjective, but which we hear as God’s voice speaking from within us. To understand that voice we rely not on our own interpretation, but on a shared conversation about interpretation. Together we seek clarity and a semblance of truth—an objectivity we regard as "the word of God." And rabbinic dialogue enriches the communal conversation by exhuming the greater values buried beneath the surface of the text, giving us the wiggle room needed to extend those values to the altogether different circumstances of today.

So when you say, "The Jewish tradition clearly doesn’t regard equality as highly as we do,” I’m put off quite a bit, because it negates Judaism’s ability to change and grow with the world, as we come into contact with higher revelations of holiness than those with which we were acquainted at the time of Judaism’s inception. Our sages deduce that the klalim gedolim (big everythings) of Judaism are b’nai adam (we are all the children of Adam), v’ahavta larecha kamokha (love your fellow as yourself) and b’tselem elokim (we’re all made in the image of God). So it is quite dubious to conclude that the Torah is anti-equality, or opposed to evolving conceptions of justice.

Yes, the Torah can be downright offensive at times. But that doesn’t mean we’re locked into that paradigm. It’s simply a starting point for the pursuit of a higher ideal of justice.

Dan

Wednesday: Steven I. Weiss says Maimonides would beat your woman

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