Posts Tagged 'Law'

Beyond Just Right and Left: On the Authority of Law

We learn in  Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion, the basic elements of the justice system. There we read:

You shall act in accordance with the instructions given you and the ruling handed down to you; you must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left.

Deuteronomy 17:11

While we need to believe in the Torah, the Torah itself is asking us to follow the interpretation of the Judges. The rule of law is not limited to the given word, but rather predicated by following the Judges interpretation of the law. This idea continues from the Judges to the Rabbis as they become the interpreters of the law. This idea is echoed in one of three wonderful story about a non-Jew who wants to convert with a condition. There we read:

There was an incident involving one gentile who came before Shammai. The gentile said to Shammai: How many Torahs do you have? He said to him: Two, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The gentile said to him: With regard to the Written Torah, I believe you, but with regard to the Oral Torah, I do not believe you. Convert me on condition that you will teach me only the Written Torah. Shammai scolded him and cast him out with reprimand. The same gentile came before Hillel, who converted him and began teaching him Torah. On the first day, he showed him the letters of the alphabet and said to him: Alef, bet, gimmel, dalet. The next day he reversed the order of the letters and told him that an alef is a tav and so on. The convert said to him: But yesterday you did not tell me that. Hillel said to him: You see that it is impossible to learn what is written without relying on an oral tradition. Didn’t you rely on me? Therefore, you should also rely on me with regard to the matter of the Oral Torah, and accept the interpretations that it contains.

Shabbat 31a

The would-be convert wants to accept the Torah but not the Rabbis’ interpretation. While Shammai is not having it at all, Hillel is willing to play. Just as in our Torah portion one would have to accept left as right and right as left, Hillel is pushing him to accept Alef as Taf and Taf as Alef. In this context the convert realizes that it is a package deal. To have access to the written Torah he will also need to trust the Rabbis and accept their interpretation for better and for worse. To become a Jew is predicated by accepting Rabbinic Authority. We see in the would-be convert a character that I often find in myself. I think I know what is right and what is wrong and I am not willing to trust an external authority. I often get stuck there. I have a feeling I am not the only one who gets stuck in this place.

This is profoundly similar to the Avraham’s situation at the Akedah, binding of his son Yitzhak. God told him to sacrifice his beloved son. Just as Avraham is about to go through with it an Angel tell him not to do it. Is this message the truth or just an interpretation. Should he go through with it? What is he to do? There we read:

When Avraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.

Genesis 22:13
Genesis 22 vers 13. De ram op de berg Moria. | Genesis bible, Bible  pictures, Biblical art

Avraham did not know which authority to follow. He did not turn his head to “either to the right or to the left “. He lifts his head and he sees a ram caught in the thicket. In the ram he sees himself. Will he go to the right or to the left or will he lift his head and see another path through the situation? We all get stuck between A and B. We do not always find a way to back up, analyze, and make a plan C. To live a life within the law we cannot deviate from the path. The path itself demands that we trust our Rabbis AND think for ourselves.

Unconscionable : On Capital Punishment, Law, and Identity

The Shema is a Jewish statement of creed that serves as a centerpiece of the morning, evening, and pre-bed prayer services. After the Shema we see the VaAhavta which spells out some of the central practices of this faith statement. I was thinking about these statements in that they are both found in Va’etchanan, this week’s Torah portion. Here we read:

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.Take to heart these instructions with which I מְצַוְּךָ֛- charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. ( Deuteronomy 6:4-7)

The charge – מְצַוְּךָ֛ is to keep the Mitzvot– Commandments. In this sense traditionally Jewish identity is defined as how we live our live by these laws. This is interesting in juxtaposition to Christian’s identity which often is defined around love and not law. For Judaism our commitment to law is our expression of our love. 

I was thinking about this idea of identity recently when watching an extraordinary TED talk by Byran Stevenson. It really is a must watch:

The topic of how we need to talk about an injustice is very compelling. For me the most brilliant part of his talk is how he framed the conversation about the legal system in America around the idea of identity.

Once Stevenson was giving a lecture in Germany about the death penalty. There he said:

It was fascinating because one of the scholars stood up after the presentation and said, “Well you know it’s deeply troubling to hear what you’re talking about.” He said, “We don’t have the death penalty in Germany. And of course, we can never have the death penalty in Germany.” And the room got very quiet, and this woman said, “There’s no way, with our history, we could ever engage in the systematic killing of human beings. It would be unconscionable for us to, in an intentional and deliberate way, set about executing people.” And I thought about that. What would it feel like to be living in a world where the nation state of Germany was executing people, especially if they were disproportionately Jewish? I couldn’t bear it. It would be unconscionable.

In America we clearly disassociate ourselves from the law. It is unconscionable how these laws are radically unjust to people of color.  And for many of us who are not subject to this discrimination we have the luxury of being unconscious about the impact of this legal system. Our laws should manifest our attempt to bring about justice in the world. What would it look like if we identified ourselves by our laws? It seems that our laws are mostly punitive. What would our laws look like if they were framed as an expression of love?

These questions come to a head when we discuss capital punishment. About this Stevenson says:

In many ways, we’ve been taught to think that the real question is, do people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed? And that’s a very sensible question. But there’s another way of thinking about where we are in our identity. The other way of thinking about it is not, do people deserve to die for the crimes they commit, but do we deserve to kill?

Our faith in law needs to be an identity that is wrapped up in seeing the infinite worth of every human being. It is unconscionable to abide a law that falls short of recognizing this fact. In each and everyone of us is an element of the divine. We need to express our love to God by how we write and live out our legal system.


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