Posts Tagged 'Shoftim'

One of Us: Heathens

Two years ago my kids and I could not get in the car and listen to the radio without listening to the song Heathens by 21 Pilots Just like Desposito, Heathens was all the rage. I must warn you before you listen to it that this song is a bit of an earworm. Please just remember that you have been warned.

 

 

The song plays with the idea of being an insider or an outsider to this group of a misfit group of heathens. But what is a heathen? A heathen is a person who does not belong to a widely held religion. Today people feel like they are outsiders to faith and are in turn skeptical of people who want to join them. As the song goes:

Why’d you come, you knew you should have stayed
I tried to warn you just to stay away
And now they’re outside ready to bust
It looks like you might be one of us

The song tells the story of an outsider to a group of outsiders and how that person becomes an insider.

This reminds me of three successive stories told in the Talmud of three heathens who come before Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shamai ( Shabbat 31a). Each of them hoped to join the Jewish people, but came with a unique stipulation. In each case Shamai pushes them away and Hillel finds a way to meet them where they are. With Hillel’s help they join the Jewish people. In the process they relented on their stipulation and they were transformed. The outsider becomes an insider of this group of outsiders. In someone way, at least by this story being shared in the Talmud, we as a people were also changed by their joining us. This leaves me with the question in these three stories as with the song Heathens, were the outsiders accommodated or included?

I was thinking about this when reading Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

If there be found in your midst, within any of thy gates which the Lord your God gives you, man or woman, that does that which is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, in transgressing God’s covenant, and has gone and served other gods, and worshiped them, or the sun, or the moon, or any of the host of heaven, which I have commanded not; and it be told you, and you hear it, then shalt you inquire diligently, and, behold, if it be true, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought in Israel; then you shall bring forth that man or that woman, who have done this evil thing, unto your gates, even the man or the woman; and you shall stone them with stones, that they die.( Deuteronomy 17:2- 5)

These are some harsh words for the heathen. They are supposed to be excluded in the most severe way, being stoned to death. Do we still want to maintain such a harsh disposition to the “heathens” in our midst? Maybe we should be more like Hillel and strive to meet people where they are. I appreciate the fear of Shamai, we are a group of outsiders to history. We have a lot at risk of losing our identity by compromise in any way shape or form. At the same time I feel that we have what to gain from real mutual engagement with people different than ourselves. I do not think that Hillel was just accommodating, if we actually include these outsiders we might just realize that they “might be one of us.”

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Judging A Tragic Cycle

In Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the nature of the Israelite law system. There we read:

18 Judges and officers you shall make yourselves in all of your gates, which the Lord your God gives you, tribe by tribe; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. 19 You shalt not wrest judgment; you shall not respect persons; neither shall you take a gift; for a gift does blind the eyes of the wise, and pervert the words of the righteous. 20 Justice, justice shalt you follow, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you. ( Deuteronomy 16:18-20)

It seems pretty clear that for a judge to be successful they need to be beyond reproach. I was thinking about the role of the judge in the Torah which looks a lot like our aspiration of the Western justice system as compared to the role of the judge in the book of Judges. There in the book of Judges we see divinely inspired leaders whose direct knowledge of God’s will which allows them to act as champions for the Israelites against oppression by foreign rulers, and models of the wise and faithful behavior required of them. They seem more like military leaders then sitting bench judges from the Torah or our legal system. The stories in the book of Judges follow a consistent pattern:

  • The people are unfaithful to God
  • God therefore delivers them into the hands of their enemies
  • The people repent and entreat God for mercy
  • God sends in the form of a leader or champion
  • The judge delivers the Israelites from oppression and they prosper
  • Soon they fall again into unfaithfulness
  • The cycle is repeated.

Both the image of the just judge from our Torah portion and the leadership judge from the book of Judges shed light on harrowing time we are in today.

We will see what comes out of Mueller’s investigation, but it is likely to exhibit that the current administration is not beyond reproach. There is mounting lack of confidence in the leadership of our country. Since Charlottesville people doubt the administration’s moral leadership. When we look at their “accomplishments” in total since the start of their administration we have to ask if they have any type of leadership needed to govern? In response, Trump has been playing to his base. It is scary to realize that he has been casting himself in the image of the judges from the book of Judges and that his base is locked into living out that tragic cycle again and again. It is even scarier to realize that he does not have what it takes to pursue justice. History will judge Trump poorly.

The DNA of Responsibility : Ending the Story of Racism

I recently watched momondo‘s video about ” The DNA Journey“. The video shares interviews with a broad cross-section of British society. In the first half they ask these individuals their feelings about their own group identity and their thoughts on other cultures/ nationalities/races and groups. The researchers then offer each of them free travel to visit their ancestral homes as determined by a DNA test. In the second part of the short film they share the DNA reports with the participants. It is worth watching to see the impact of these reports in challenging their assumptions about themselves and the world.

On their website momondo says:

We only have one world, but it’s divided. We tend to think that there are more things dividing us than uniting us.

It is fascinating how personal narratives rarely align to the stories told by our DNA. Race and other social groupings are clearly just a construct and not as “real” as we have been led to believe.

I  was thinking about this when talking to my friend Adina Konikoff this morning at the bus stop. She is giving a Dvar Torah at her Minyan on Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion,  race relations in the country, and the story of the Egel Arufa, the heifer.  There the end of Shoftim we read:

1If, in the land that the Lord your God is assigning you to possess, someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known, 2your elders and magistrates shall go out and measure the distances from the corpse to the nearby towns. 3The elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall then take a heifer which has never been worked, which has never pulled in a yoke; 4and the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to an ever-flowing wadi, which is not tilled or sown. There, in the wadi, they shall break the heifer’s neck. 5The priests, sons of Levi, shall come forward; for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister to Him and to pronounce blessing in the name of the Lord, and every lawsuit and case of assault is subject to their ruling. 6Then all the elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi. 7And they shall make this declaration: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. 8Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.” And they will be absolved of blood-guilt. 9Thus you will remove from your midst guilt for the blood of the innocent, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 21: 1- 9)

It is untenable in the Torah for a murder to happen without fault and someone taking responsibility. The ritual of the Egel Arufa, the heifer, is an effort to reconcile  society’s responsibility for that murder. It has profound implications in modern society in which almost the entire world is inhabited and we are more interconnected than ever online. If we have this level of responsibility of the Egel Arufa when the victim is not connected to us, how much more responsibility do we have today?

I was thinking about this anew since watching the The DNA Journey video. We often resort to our tribal identity to define the sphere of responsibility. But these identities and narratives are just a social constructs. The story told by our DNA is that we all intermingled and truly responsible for each other. The surge of racially motivated violence needs to stop. In the The DNA Journey video in response to getting her report one woman replied saying, “I’m going to go a little far off right now, but this should be compulsory… There would be no such thing as extremism in the world if people knew their heritage.” How will we eradicate the scourge racism? We might need to sacrifice our old narratives, but we are responsible to tell a new story. This story is already in us, right there in our very DNA.

Passing Judgement

In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, we read, “You shall make judges and officers in all your gates, which the Lord your God gives you, tribe by tribe; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. “(Deuteronomy 16:18) We all understand the importance of law enforcement in maintaining social order. But, what is the significance of having these judges stationed at the gates?

It seems that elsewhere in the Bible we see the gate as the sight of law.  For example, Boaz took Ruth to the gate to announce their getting married (Ruth 4:1). In the world before websites, it seems that the gate was the best sight to communicate information to the masses. But, it also seems that the Israelite Philosopher Kings were charged to not only to know the law, but to administer it. In the book of Judges, the judges seem to be better warriors then jurists. In that light, they might have been stationed at the gates to protect the people inside the city walls.

Who plays the role of the judge today?All too often today’s rabbi is cast into the role of the gate-keeper. S/he is charged to serve as the keeper of the faith in a time of an ever-diminishing number of Jews who live their lives within the confines of Jewish law. Is the job of today’s judge to keep the denizens of the law safe from the outsiders? Today many Jews are outsiders, should today’s judges stand there trying to wave down passers-by and try to usher them into the law? Or maybe part of the issue is assuming that the synagogue or JCC is still the gate of the city. It is also interesting to see how many rabbis have transformed their role as a warrior into a seeker of social justice. This gate is an interesting place for  him/her to sit.  The want to pass judgement and stand for something, and not just be passed by as they sit at their gate. Can today’s judge fight for the law without seeming judgmental?

 


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