Shammai’s Jewish Standard Column (to be published June 24)
For Shammai’s previous columns, click here.
A Misread Narrative That Fuels Contempt Contempt—for God and for God’s laws—is a big deal as far as the Torah is concerned, and it carries with it a harsh penalty—excision. As this week’s Torah reading puts it, the person who “acts defiantly reviles the Lord; that person shall be cut off from among the people. Because it was the word of Lord that was spurned and [God’s] commandment that was violated, that person shall be cut off—and bears the guilt.” (See Numbers 15:30-31.) We see a great deal of that kind of contempt in our narrow Jewish world and in the broader one in which we live. In our Jewish world, that contempt for God’s law is blatantly but inexplicably evident, for example, in the way the three main synagogue organizations—at least in the past—have handled sexual abuse allegations made against rabbis, teachers and staff members. In February, for example, a law firm hired by the Union of Reform Judaism released the results of an investigation that uncovered numerous instances over the past 50 years of sexual misconduct, sexual assault, and tolerance of a “sexualized culture” in the movement’s youth programs. It also found instances in which congregational rabbis who were fired for sexual misconduct by their synagogues wound up working for either the URJ or the movement’s rabbinical arm, the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Two lawsuits were filed last year against the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. They allege that a onetime United Synagogue Youth divisional director was a serial sexual abuser, that USY and the UCSJ were aware of it in 2002 but continued to employ him. In 2017, as a devastating Times of Israel article last August revealed, the man was finally let go after new allegations surfaced that he reportedly did not even bother to deny. Because he was let go quietly, though, he was able to land an executive director’s position at a Conservative synagogue. As for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, for nearly 30 years the O-U protected a rabbi who it knew abused children—knew, not just suspected, as a rabbi involved in the cover-up confirmed. Worse, the O-U kept him heavily involved in its youth program, the National Council of Synagogue Youth (NCSY). Contempt for God’s law abounds in the outside world. God’s law, for example, requires leaders to maintain the highest ethical standards and to avoid doing anything to improperly enrich themselves while serving as leaders. (See Deuteronomy 17.) The Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act of 2012 was designed to combat insider trading by members of Congress. So far this year, 63 members of Congress—31 Democrats and 32 Republicans—have violated that law, including several New Jersey and New York Democrats. These people pass laws we are all supposed to follow, but they do not bother to follow laws they themselves pass that they alone are supposed to follow. That is contempt. Perhaps the most egregious sign of contempt relates to protecting the public’s health and safety—something God’s law takes very seriously. A peer-reviewed study from researchers at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital was published last week and its findings appear irrefutable. It covered the years between 2001 and 2019, before the current pandemic struck. Its bottom line: People who live in historically solid Republican U.S. counties die sooner than people in historically solid Democratic counties. The difference is attributed to how the two parties approach a variety of non-health-related quality-of-life factors as well as health care availability. I cannot explain the contempt shown for God’s law in our own narrow world because we believe that law came from God. In the outside world, however, showing contempt for God’s law comes easily to people who do not believe there is such a thing (including many who pay lip service to God’s word, but then ignore it). The Torah, they believe, is just a bunch of folkloristic fairy tales, so its laws are human inventions and, thus, irrelevant. The opening verse of this week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, is often compared to Deuteronomy 1:22ff as “proof” of that. As traditionally translated, that verse says God ordered that men be sent to scout out the land of Canaan. The Deuteronomy verses say this was the people’s idea. Because God would tell the same story the same way each time, this “proof” has it, obviously the Torah is not from God, assuming there is a God. Actually, this “proof” reveals a crucial truth about the nature of God that human beings, we Jews included, find almost impossible to comprehend or to accept: God is as much in the dark about what will happen tomorrow as we are. To begin with, God did not originate the scouting mission in Shelach Lecha. The people did, just as Deuteronomy 1 says. God does not say, “Choose men.” God says, “Choose for yourself men....” The people wanted some reassurance that Canaan truly was a land flowing with milk and honey. In saying “send for yourself men,” God was merely acquiescing to what the people said they needed. Other texts this week confirm this. For example, God says this in declaring Israel’s punishment: “Corresponding to the number of days that you scouted the land..., a year for each day, you shall bear the consequences of your sin...; and you will know what it is to frustrate me.” (See Numbers 14:34.) If God initiated the mission, that makes no sense, because God is neither perverse nor cruel. If God knew the future, God knew in advance what was going to happen. That would mean God would be punishing Israel for obeying God in the first place, and that is ridiculous. Clearly, God did not originate the mission. The begs the question, though: if God knew what would happen, why did God accede to the request? Why did not God warn Moses about what was going to happen? That brings us back to the nature of God: We assume that God, being God, creator of all things and existing outside time and space, must know the future because “all things” includes the future. How could God not know the future if God created the future? It is because God neither created the future nor knows the future. If God created the future, that would mean God dictates what we do; we are all just puppets dangling on God’s strings, living the script the Grand Puppeteer wrote for us. If so, though, how can we ever be held accountable for our actions if they were dictated by God? How can God punish us for being bad if the only reason we are being bad is because God wrote that into the script that controls our individual lives? What purpose does atoning on Yom Kippur serve? God did not create the future; God created humanity and gave us humans the job of creating the future. God has an end-goal—a just, equitable, more perfect world where everyone cares for everyone else—but God leaves to us the details of how we get to that goal. He gave us humans free will and hoped—and probably still hopes—that we would do the right things that get us to that end goal, and not the wrong things that only keep us from reaching that goal. If we accept that God exists and that the Torah is truly the word of God, the One True God, then all of us must either follow the Torah’s moral and ethical code, or openly defy God. People by and large do not want to follow God’s code. They want standards of morality and ethics that are convenient to them, or to their society as a whole. Take God out of the running as the source for the Torah’s narratives means taking God out of the running as the source of its laws. People wrote the laws, not God; God has different ideas. The Torah demands that we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, free the captive and heal those who are ill. It insists that regardless of any artificial differences, we all share a common ultimate ancestor; we are all related to each other, and we must look out for each other in every way possible. It commands us to protect God’s creation—including the environment and everything in it. The Torah thus clashes with what too many people feel they want for themselves and for the society of which we are all supposed to be a part. How comfortable it is, then, to say that this week’s reading especially proves that the Torah does not come from God; that God did not write this, or any other part of the Torah. When we defy the Torah’s prescription for a great society, we defy God. When we reward those who commit contemptuous acts—in our world through dues and donations and in the broader world around us by our votes—we defy God. There should be nothing comfortable about that.