We are all aware that when we turn to Jewish tradition for teachings that inspire us to work for social justice, we often turn a blind eye to texts that can inspire the opposite: religious paternalism, inequality, brutal forms of capital punishment, and yes, even race-based genocide.
But is this okay? Can we credibly cite Jewish teachings that encourage a better world when there exist parallel teachings that could lead to a worse one?
The comments were made in the context of writing for the America Jewish World Service Dvar Tzedek program, which publishes an ethics-based commentary on the parsha each week. He goes on to point out that although it is very easy to cherry-pick, especially in Sefer Devarim, those ideas that ore most consonant with our own ethics, those other ideas must be addressed.
Whether we condemn these texts or merely note their difficulty, they are our responsibility. If we ignore them and fail to forge communal opinions about them, we risk the possibility of them being resurrected and reclaimed.
Of course, it goes well beyond possibility. I have personally heard members of the settler movement claim that Palestinians are the modern-day Amalek, or more moderately, among the seven nations of Canaan who must similarly be exterminated. The ongoing issue of Agunot is another living example of this problem.
What is to be done? Rabbinic Judaism had a pretty good answer in the systematic evolution of halacha. The elimination of capital punishment, polygamy, and corporeal punishment, and the institutions of ketubah, heter iska, and prozbol addressed many problems in ethics and social justice. Unfortunately, our denominations today can’t seem to find that path. Orthodoxy has abandoned the notion of evolution of halacha in favor of a plainly falsifiable belief in static halacha; Reform have abandoned halacha altogether. In the words of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, “If you take it all upon yourself as an obligation rather than as a choice, you’ve reached the point at which you’re no longer a Reform Jew.” Taking it one step further, Reconstructionist Judasim simply denies God’s existence (let din v’leit dayan). As for the Conservatives, they are riven in at least twain (though in truth, the complexities of their divisions may indeed be a strength, as their new generation seeks to marry the most progressive ethical notions with the most traditional and restrictive Halachic norms). Right now, the movement could be fairly described as ish hayashar b’eynav ya’aseh – each person does as he sees fit.
What’s needed is a revival. Not a revival of Jewish culture or reconfiguration of Jewish conecpts a la the FrankenJews at Jewcy. Not a new commitment to Jewish texts and text study, which so often is agenda–driven. What’s needed is a revival of Yirat Shamayim – fear of God. Acceptance of the idea of Mitzvah-as-commandment, not as good deed, or even favor-to-the-Jewish-People, or even as a nourishing aspect of self-identification.
Today is the second day of Elul, a time for introspection, evaluation, repentance, and renewed commitment. It is marked by shofar-blasts at shacharit, the morning prayers recited by probably no more than one-tenth of the Jewish population in the US. Hayitaka Shofar ba-ir V’ha’am lo yecherad (can a shofar be blown in a city, and it’s inhabitants not tremble?) (Amos 3:6). The question is asked rhetorically, but today, the shofar’s call is barely heard, much less heeded. I want to end today with the words of the captain of the ship that Jonah sailed upon to avoid his stern, commanding God’s decree :
(Jonah 1:6) The Rambam tells us that the shofar calls to us to awaken from our slumber, and to return to God. Sometimes, as in Jonah’s case, that return is painful, and the task before us is unpleasant. It requires personal abnegation, not affirmation. We may be called upon to do that which we find distasteful, or even that which we are diametrically opposed to. But we cannot, and we should not flee it. Even in the depths of the sea Jonah did not find comfort, only a temporary escape. It’s time for us to make our accounting before God, to face the music, and acknowledge that there is a Law, and Judge who holds us to it.