By: Rabbi Naamah Kelman, the Dean of
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
Recently I participated on a panel discussing Intermarriage. This was for an Israeli audience and for many of them; the very issue of Intermarriage is just another indication of the decline of Jewry outside of Israel. It was not a hostile audience. They were trying to understand how we maintain a strong identity in the face of rampant intermarriage (particularly in the United States) and strong peoplehood connections. My Orthodox counterpart, viewed intermarriage as a golden opportunity to bring outsiders in. Of course, he would like the non-Jewish partner to convert, and preferably an Orthodox conversion. We did not argue about the phenomenon, and he stated very clearly that Reform Jews are his partners in keeping Jews Jewish. Where we did represent different perspectives was regarding the issue of the essence of Judaism. What defines us as Jews? Why bother to be Jewish?
For my distinguished Orthodox colleague the answer was simple: Shabbat, Holidays,
(family purity) and Kashrut (Dietary Laws). While these norms are critical, we hold a different understanding in Progressive Judaism. I posited that Judaism is also about key Jewish values. To be Jewish is also: to love the stranger, to see others in the image of God, to be versed in our sacred books, to pursue Justice, to be able to adapt and absorb from surrounding traditions and new understandings of humankind and our world. In other words, what is the point of keeping Shabbat, if we do not allow others less fortunate to rest? Why maintain “family purity” if women are seen as property or to be segregated? Why celebrate the freedom of Passover if we mistreat refugees and minorities? If we just observe rituals for the sake of rituals, what is our vision for family, community, and beyond?
The moderator of our panel responded that one does not have to be Jewish to keep some of the “universal” values that I was promoting; but I contended that indeed without our universal values of social justice, embrace of humanity and freedom, are essential to Judaism. And we offer rituals and celebrations to reinforce these values. These values are embedded into our ritual laws and without these safeguards, we are prone to segregation, extremism, racism, sexism, and homophobia.
Perhaps this is why the portion of
comes right after the receiving of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments (from the portion before) is our sweeping and exalted declaration of basic human values. This is followed by a compendium of laws and commandments that are particular to our circumstances and our story. The values purported in the Ten Commandments are indeed exalted, but how do we translate these ideals into daily life, and particularly the laws and ordinances governing the relations between human beings?
The portion of ”
” offers many answers. Some that will disturb our modern sentiments greatly, while others offer a window into an ancient society coming out of slavery and forming a new nation. Some are inspiring and full of compassion for the stranger, the orphan; while others relate to women as totally dependent on husbands or fathers.
These laws will be the basis for much of rabbinic interpretation. They are often too succinct to implement or understand. Some were never really implemented. The infamous: “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” had to be interpreted later as laws of compensation and certainly not to be taken literally. Many of the capital crimes listed were never enforced either, although be forewarned of the severity of violence committed against parents, one’s slave, committing bestiality and more. Some of the laws may not “surprise” the modern reader in their primal and patriarchal form. What stand out are the laws that show compassion for one’s enemy, the stranger, the widow, and the defenseless. On the one hand, many of the laws maintain a rigorous social strata where men are superior to women and slaves; and yet, on the other they are reminded that there are safeguards for these very dependent and vulnerable populations; even your enemy.
Rabbinic interpretation, beginning with the Midrash Rabba, offers many commentaries on this portion that underscore the importance of a ”
” just and fair laws.
In Chapter 22, vs 21 of the parasha, it clearly states: You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan.” And, then the verses continue: if you (communal leaders) do not observe this commandment God’s wrath will punish you, making your wives and children widows and orphans. One Midrash asks: “Why does God love orphans and widows? Because their eyes are raised to none but God; as it says in Psalms 68:6, God is a father to the fatherless and judge of the widows. Hence, he who robs them is like one who robs God…” and punishment will be swift. These harsh warnings continue in much of the rabbinic commentary.
Another example in the Midrash Rabba quotes Rabbi Elazar. He determines that indeed “all of Torah rests on ”
meaning justice! God purposely gave the laws after the Ten Commandments to teach the world that God punishes those who transgress the laws. And which laws? Those commandments pertaining to justice. The Midrash continues: God brought destruction on Sodom and Gemorrah because, they had perverted justice, and later upon Jerusalem, for there too, leaders ignored and mistreated the widow and orphan. This is what a God of Compassion and justice measures, not the bringing of sacrifices or the observance of rituals only, but that coupled with ethical and fair behavior within the community.
Sadly, for many a modern person, these ordinances of compassion and justice are viewed as “universal”. One does not have to be Jewish to uphold them. Yes, this is true. We Jews do not have a monopoly on justice and fairness. But Judaism, in order to survive and thrive, must stand on these principles as well.
The parahsa of ”
” may read like a book of random ordinances and laws, many irrelevant for today. Despite its ancient limitations, it is enduring because of many of the laws that build a just and caring community.