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Jewish Tradition / Western Values

Thursday, February 20, 2020 | 25th Shvat 5780

Dear All,

Last week we heard the ten commandments. This week we read mishpatim (Exodus 21:1 – 24:18), which expands a short list of injunctions into a more detailed frame for establishing a just society. It is one of the most glorious sidras in the Torah. It has been foundational to what it has meant to be Jewish these last twenty centuries and more. And it prompts some quite deep questions – and even provocations – about the juxtaposition between Jewish tradition, on one side, and contemporary Western values, on the other.

The sidra includes – variously – injunctions about the shmita year, about Shabbat, and about making restitution for damage done by your livestock.
It twice includes the injunction against wronging a stranger, “because you were slaves in Egypt.”
It includes the instruction that if you took your neighbor’s garment as security for a loan, you must release it before sunset – because if your neighbor is so poor that they’re using a coat as security, they’ll likely need it back that night.
It proscribes false rumors, and boiling a kid in its mother’s milk and subverting the rights of the needy; and it prescribes making restitution if you started a fire or if your animals damaged someone else’s land.

In all this, it may sound as if Jewish tradition is somehow simply “an ethical system.” It encourages us to do good and to be good, and we thus assume (if only implicitly) that it is consonant with an evolving Western notion of being a good person.

But what is interesting to me – and I think is worth thinking about for all of us – is not the ways that the tradition is consonant with contemporary Western values, but where it diverges from them.

Here are just a few things that should provoke us far more deeply.

This is almost entirely about obligations, responsibilities, prescriptions and prohibitions, and very little about “rights” in a contemporary sense. It is true that we could, as it were, back-out “rights” from these responsibilities. If you are obligated to release the garment I gave you as surety for a loan then, arguably, I have a “right” to get my coat back, same day. Nevertheless, the fact that this is framed as an injunction on the person who has taken the coat, and not the one who gave it, is deeply significant. The Torah, over and over, makes clear that constructing a good society requires that we each and all of us take upon ourselves a wide series of obligations that circumscribe our freedoms. 

We live in a country that begins with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We shouldn’t take these things granted – if we lived in Nazi Germany or the USSR, or we lived now in North Korea, or in China, we would very quickly notice the absence of these rights, and some of us might indeed be imprisoned or lose our lives unjustly in their absence.

Despite this, we still, I think, should reflect on the balance between rights and responsibilities. The Torah has so little to say about rights; and the entire weight of the tradition, and very clearly in this parsha – is a whole series of obligations, positive and negative, small and large. If I give “tzedakah” I’m doing something that Jewish tradition sees as an obligation, not an act of charity. Ditto things that have become inherent to Jewish life – visiting the sick; supporting those in need; educating our children; hosting meals; expressing gratitude.

And note that in our lifetime, this starts to bite in new ways. How does my “right” to drive an SUV conflict with the societal costs of doing so? I think that Jewish tradition might say some version of, well; I can’t say that you shouldn’t drive an SUV (though maybe indeed you shouldn’t); but what are your added responsibilities to others, if you’re disproportionately damaging the world by your actions?

I want to be very clear: I’m not writing this to make you feel bad, or make you feel guilty, or to throw rocks at anyone; I don’t have standing to do that and I don’t think it is productive or helpful. Rather I simply want to note that, in this post-industrial post-postmodern moment, we all of us take for granted the notion that, frankly, we can each do what we like. And Jewish tradition, quite deeply, comes to challenge that. And so that means actually thinking about where we continue to give ourselves license to do things that are damaging; where we start to change our behaviors; and in what ways we strive to ameliorate or balance out our less good behaviors.

This leads me to one other point I want to make from this parsha. Look at Shmot 23:4-5:

כִּ֣י תִפְגַּ֞ע שׁ֧וֹר אֹֽיִבְךָ֛ א֥וֹ חֲמֹר֖וֹ תֹּעֶ֑ה הָשֵׁ֥ב תְּשִׁיבֶ֖נּוּ לֽוֹ

When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to [your enemy].

כִּֽי־תִרְאֶ֞ה חֲמ֣וֹר שֹׂנַאֲךָ֗ רֹבֵץ֙ תַּ֣חַת מַשָּׂא֔וֹ וְחָדַלְתָּ֖ מֵעֲזֹ֣ב ל֑וֹ עָזֹ֥ב תַּעֲזֹ֖ב עִמּֽוֹ׃

When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you really must help it get up.

I point out these two lines, and I find them so significant, because they cut so deeply against another part of Western culture. Our tradition is very “go with the flow.” Our feelings are preeminent. You really really pissed me off, and now I’m driving past you slowly on the road, and your car has broken down – am I really going to stop to help you? The Torah says, yes. Someone irritated us at work, and now it looks like they might need help with a project – am I going to pitch in?

Again, I want to say: it’s not that I think I’m such a good person, or that I have or would act in the way that the Torah enjoins. But I feel pretty clear about how the tradition pushes me. Reading the Torah year after year, engaging in Jewish learning, being engaged indeed in Jewish life – it should push us. It really should push us. It should challenge us. The tradition is maximalist, not minimalist. It does not believe that I can do whatever I like, so long as I don’t break the law or trespass on your property. Precisely the opposite – whoever we are, however good we may be in certain respects, the Torah constantly – constantly – is pushing us to improve our behavior, and especially when doing so cuts against our (selfish) instincts and emotions.

If you haven’t recently, I do encourage you to read or reread this week’s parsha. And lets all of us – as individuals, as families, and as leaders within our institutions – let’s lean in to Jewish tradition; let’s listen to this ancient (and difficult) wisdom; and let’s strive to push ourselves to think more honestly and act more clearly in feeling obligated in different ways, to work for a better world for all.

Shabbat Shalom,

Nigel