Sunday, August 22, 2010

Lessons of Torah Law

As I have on previous occasions, this past Friday I took a turn as lay leader of Sabbath services at Congregation Adas Emuno.  You may recall that I have been on the Board of Trustees and was recently elected Vice-President of this small Temple, located in Leonia, which is in Bergen County, in northern New Jersey, and follows the tradition of Reform Judaism (and that I've set up a congregational blog at http://adasemuno.blogspot.com).  And as I have on previous occasions, I thought I'd share some of that experience with you.

After the opening section of the service, and before the call to worship (Barachu) prayer, I said that with the High Holy Days almost upon us, I thought I would read a poem (and song lyrics) by Leonard Cohen that was inspired by the Yom Kippur liturgy:

Who By Fire


Leonard Cohen


And who by fire?
Who by water,?
Who in the sunshine?
Who in the night time,?
Who by high ordeal?
Who by common trial?
Who in your merry merry month of May?
Who by very slow decay?
And who shall I say is calling?




And who in her lonely slip?
Who by barbiturate?
Who in these realms of love?
Who by something blunt?
And who by avalanche?
Who by powder,?
Who for his greed?
Who for his hunger,?
And who shall I say is calling?




And who by brave assent?
Who by accident?
Who in solitude?
Who in this mirror?
Who by his lady's command?
Who by his own hand?
Who in mortal chains?
Who in power?
And who shall I say is calling?

After reading this, I explained that in the call to worship, whether the call is issued by a rabbi, cantor, cohen (descendant of the priests of the Temple in Jerusalem from the House of Aaron, brother of Moses), or lay leader, the service leader is calling to the congregation to participate in the Sabbath services, to come to worship God.  In doing so, we all join together in calling to God to answer our prayers.

The service then proceeded as usual until we reached the point where it is customary to provide a sermon or D'var Torah (Word of Torah).  I prepared a bit of a talk about the week's Torah portion (parshah), which I'd like to share with you now:


This week’s Parshah is Ki Teitzei, which covers Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19.  Of the 613 laws and commandments contained within the Torah, 74 can be found in this section.  In the Reform tradition, we do not regard the laws as having been written or dictated by God, but as the historical product of fallible human beings, human beings who were struggling as they reached towards something greater than themselves, who were inspired by their sense of the sacred and the spiritual, moved by their relationship to God, and in a sense divinely inspired.
 
Many of the laws are difficult to relate to, as they speak to us from a time and place that was very different from our own.  There are laws about how to deal with a beautiful woman taken captive during war, and laws providing exemption from military service for newlywed men (maybe that's not so hard to relate to).  There are laws governing marriage and divorce, including laws pertaining to polygamous marriage, and laws concerning the virginity of brides.  There are laws about nocturnal emissions, laws against incest, prostitution, adultery, libel, and cross-dressing.  And there are laws about going to the bathroom back when there was no such thing as a bathroom to go to.


But together with laws that seem to have no relevance to our lives today, there are commandments that speak to us about the fundamental requirement for ethical behavior.  So, for example, we are told:


Chapter 21:22. If a man commits a sin for which he is sentenced to death, and he is put to death, you shall [then] hang him on a pole.  23. But you shall not leave his body on the pole overnight. Rather, you shall bury him on that [same] day, for a hanging [human corpse] is a blasphemy of God, and you shall not defile your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you as an inheritance.
Yes, there were harsh punishments in ancient times, harsh justice for harsh times, but the line is drawn here between justice and vengence.  This commandment comes to us from the same era in which the Greeks were singing the songs of Homer, about how Achilles, the greatest hero of the Achaeans, killed Hector during the Trojan War, and tied his body to his chariot and dragged it around and around in front of the city, until finally Hector’s father, King Priam, comes out and begs Achilles to let him bury his son’s body.  For our ancestors, that kind of behavior was outlawed by the Torah.


And we are commanded to watch out for each other:


Chapter 22:1. You shall not see your brother's ox or sheep straying, and ignore them. [Rather,] you shall return them to your brother.  2. But if your brother is not near you, or if you do not know him, you shall bring it into your house, and it shall be with you until your brother seeks it out, whereupon you shall return it to him. 3. So shall you do with his donkey, and so shall you do with his garment, and so shall you do with any lost article of your brother which he has lost and you have found. You shall not ignore [it]. 4. You shall not see your brother's donkey or his ox fallen [under its load] on the road, and ignore them. [Rather,] you shall pick up [the load] with him.
And a few verses later:


8. When you build a new house, you shall make a guard rail for your roof, so that you shall not cause blood [to be spilled] in your house, that the one who falls should fall from it [the roof].


And still later:


Chapter 23:16. You shall not deliver a slave to his master if he seeks refuge with you from his master. 17. [Rather,] he shall [be allowed to] reside among you, wherever he chooses within any of your cities, where it is good for him. You shall not oppress him. 


Here we see the great value that we place on freedom in our tradition, which is not surprising given our biblical history of  Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers, and how Pharaoh enslaved the Israelities.  And so we find the following commandment:


Chapter 23:7. If a man is discovered kidnapping any person from among his brothers, of the children of Israel, and treats him as a slave and sells him that thief shall die, so that you shall clear out the evil from among you.


Zero tolerance! 


We also find laws about how to conduct business including the use of honest weights and measures, who we can charge interest to and who we can’t, how to deal with loans and security, and the commandment to treat workers fairly:


Chap. 24:14. You shall not withhold the wages of a poor or destitute hired worker, of your brothers or of your strangers who are in your land within your cities. 15. You shall give him his wage on his day and not let the sun set over it, for he is poor, and he risks his life for it, so that he should not cry out to the Lord against you, so that there should be sin upon you.  


There is an obvious connection between these ancient commandments and the significant Jewish involvement in labor unions and the struggle for worker’s rights that took place during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 


The Torah also introduces what was then a novel notion of personal responsibility, that individuals alone are responsible for their actions, and guilt, and punishment, ought not to be transferred onto members of their family.  And so the law declares:


16. Fathers shall not be put to death because of sons, nor shall sons be put to death because of fathers; each man shall be put to death for his own transgression.


And especially significant is the following passage, which outlines not simply charity, but our tzedakah, our obligation to the poor, which begins and ends with a reminder of our humble origins:


18. You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Lord, your God, redeemed you from there; therefore, I command you to do this thing. 19. When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to take it; it shall be [left] for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord, your God, will bless you in all that you do. 20. When you beat your olive tree, you shall not deglorify it [by picking all its fruit] after you; it shall be [left] for the stranger, the orphan and the widow. 21. When you pick the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean after you: it shall be [left] for the stranger, the orphan and the widow. 22. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt: therefore, I command you to do this thing.


So, what lessons can we learn from this?


First there is the idea of Law itself, and the Torah constitutes one of the first systems of law.  Law was a new idea in the ancient world, it was an invention that transformed our concept of justice.  Before there was law, people had a sense of what was right and wrong, of what was permitted and forbidden, but nothing was clearly spelled out.  Judges would resolve disputes and decide on punishments based on their intuitions and assumptions.  And they would rely on myths and parables, narratives like the story of Cain and Abel, and try to figure out if the case before them was similar to the story or if it was different, and to what extent it was different.  This was how societies functioned before there was writing.  With the Hebrew aleph-bet, it was possible to write down a set of laws, and instead of a parable, you could have a clear and simple statement like, You shall not murder.  This is much more abstract, it’s not a matter of comparing two specific, concrete examples, it requires us to apply a general rule to a specific instance.  It requires a new kind of thinking, one that today we consider to be a more highly developed mode of thought.


It is important to understand that back in biblical times, Judaism was not simply a religion as we understand religions to be today.  The Torah also represented the culture of the Jewish people, our history, and our political system, as well as our legal system—it was our constitution.  And the problem with written law is that it needs to be interpreted, and this became more and more true as time passed, and so we developed the tradition of interpretation, and Talmudic scholarship.  The written law gave us the stability and continuity we needed to survive, even without a land of our own.  And the need to continually interpret and reinterpret the law gave us the flexibility we needed to be able to adapt to changing circumstances, changing times, changing cultures, over the centuries.  It is that practice of ongoing interpretation that serves as the justification of our branch of Judaism, of the Reform movement.


Of course, our tradition of law has much to do with the fact that so many of our people choose to pursue legal careers in the modern, secular world.  And, in introducing law, and legal thinking back in the ancient world, the Torah introduced new ideas such as the idea that everyone is equal before the Law.  Not only did this place special emphasis on the value of equality, but it also meant that every person was to be considered equal as an individual.  Today, we take individualism for granted, but it was almost unheard of back then, when all anyone knew was tribalism.  So while the 613 laws and commandments included some rather strict discipline, we can also understand it as part of an amazing revolution that wrenched our people out of a tribal mentality and put us on the path to modern world, and in doing so, provided a foundation for all of western civilization.


The lesson of law is associated with a second lesson, that of Order.  There is an interesting, you might say curious aversion to mixing in the Torah.  For example:


Chap. 22:9. You shall not sow your vineyard [together with] a mixed variety of species, lest the increase, even the seed that you sow and the yield of the vineyard [both] become forbidden. 10. You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together. 11. You shall not wear a mixture of wool and linen together. 


Perhaps this where we get our fashion sense?  (No mention of synthetics here.)  But it also is related to our kosher laws concerning food.  And this overall concern with order may seem odd to us, but when you think about it, our God is a creator of order, God creates by organizing, and differentiating, separating darkness from light, night from day, sky from earth, humans from the animals, man from woman, and the Sabbath from the weekdays.  The Torah introduces a new kind of orderly thinking in opposition to chaotic times.


A third lesson is that of holiness.  The specifics are less important, say, the law that a bastard cannot enter the assembly of God, which may have seemed righteous in ancient days, as a way to drive home the sanctity of marriage, but does not resonate with us today.  But the important point is the general lesson of order again, in this instance distinguishing between the sacred and the profane, so that we will show respect for what is sacred.


A fourth lesson is cleanliness, and in the Torah it is related to being holy, but it also reflects a concern about health and disease.  This is a very powerful theme in the Torah, and no doubt the basis in our tradition for the special interest that we have had in the medical profession, the contemporary phenomenon of Jewish doctors.


There is a fifth lesson here, in the often repeated command to remember that we were slaves in Egypt.  The lesson is memory itself.  It is not enough to write things down, we have to commit them to memory.  This was especially true at a time when there were very few written documents, and very few copies of the ones that did exist.  Writing was understood to be an aid to memory, not a substitute for remembering, as we see it today.  And while the written word appealed to the intellect, memory is more than just a mental operation.  When we memorize something, we learn it by heart, we bind it to ourselves through love, it involves the body as well as the mind, and it becomes a part of our soul.  The commandment to Remember is one of the central themes in our tradition.
  
In the end, the question that our tradition and our religion centers around is not, What is the nature of the Divine?  Our understanding of God is an abstract one, one that could only come from a people whose way of life and mode of thought had been altered by literacy, by writing and reading, by the aleph-bet.  And so our understanding of the Divine is that there is only one God, one God alone, and that God is invisible, omniscient, omnipresent, and almighty, that God created nature, but exists apart from nature and the material world, that God is transcendent.  So, we don’t trouble ourselves with how many gods there are, or what does God look like, or God’s gender, or even God’s personality very much.  Instead, the question that we ask is, What does God want?  That is, What does God want from us?  Or to put it more clearly, How does God want us to live our lives?  That is the question that Judaism revolves around, and that the Torah provides an answer.  And the answer was never better summarized, never better stated than when the prophet Micah (6:8) declared


God has told you, O man, what is good. And what does God require of you?  Only to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.


Shabbat Shalom.




At this point, we completed the service, and then, in lieu of the usual closing hymn, given the theme of law and social justice, we sang Bob Dylan's anthem, inspired by our liturgy and tradition, "Blowing in the Wind"--here are the lyrics:


Blowing In The Wind



Bob Dylan


How many roads must a man walk down,

Before you call him a man?

How many seas must a white dove fly,

Before she sleeps in the sand?

And how many times must a cannon ball fly,
Before they're forever banned?
The answer my friend is blowing in the wind,
Ghe answer is blowing in the wind.




How many years can a mountain exist,
Before it is washed to the sea?
How many years can some people exist,

Before they're allowed to be free?
And how many times can a man turn his head,

And pretend that he just doesn't see?


The answer my friend is blowing in the wind,

The answer is blowing in the wind.




How many times must a man look up,

Before he sees the sky?
And how many ears must one man have,

Before he can hear people cry?

And how many deaths will it take till we know,

That too many people have died?


The answer my friend is blowing in the wind,

The answer is blowing in the wind.




The answer my friend is blowing in the wind,

The answer is blowing in the wind.



I wasn't sure how that would would work out, but it is a very singable song, after all, and it sounded pretty darn good when we sang it!  It was a fitting finale for a fine Shabbat service!

4 comments:

Jane said...

These are indeed lessons to live by. Thank you for sharing this.

Lance Strate said...

My pleasure. Thanks you for saying so, Jane.

Martin said...

Congrats!!! I still remember you talking about possibly becoming a Rabbi! Now you've made that grade too!

Lance Strate said...

ha ha, not quite, Marty, but the experience of doing creative services in youth group does come in handy!