Posts Tagged 'VaEtchanan'

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.

Cover Over

Today is Tu B’Av, the 15th of the Hebrew month of Av. On this Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel said:

Israel had no greater holidays than Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur, on which occasions the daughters of Israel used to go out in white garments, borrowed so as not to put to shame one who didn’t have a white garment. (Mishnah Ta’anit  4: 8).

What does today and Yom Kippur have in common? In the Talmud it seems to mark the start (today ) and end (Yom Kippur) of the grape harvest. But is there any other connection between these two days?   In some ways these two days seem to be at odds. On Yom Kippur we work on our relationship with God. The day atones for our sins against God and does not speak to all of our sins to our fellow human beings (aka most of our sins). In contrast, we see that on Tu B’Av the unmarried girls of Jerusalem would dress in white garments and go out to dance in the vineyards attracting mates. Where Yom Kippur seems to be solely between human beings and God, Tu B’Av seems to be solely between human beings and each other.

Maybe one of the answers to this comes from the Shma which we read in VaEtchanan, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

4 Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart; 7 and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. 8 And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. 9 And you shall write them upon the door-posts of your house, and upon your gates. (Deuteronomy 6: 4- 9)

Love is the key. For some, their relations with people flow from their relationship with God, and for most I would assume it is the opposite. It is in their experience of love in the relationship in their lives that they encounter the divine. On Tu B’Av they covered over their economic status to allow people to see each other and start relationships without that status clouding their vision. Similarly  Yom Kippur is the day we cover over ( kaparah) our sins and restart our relationship with God.  As we see in the Shma  we plaster love all over our lives. We say the Shma three times a day. We wear it on our bodies in the tfillin. We put it on the doors to our house in the Mezzuzah. And of course we teach it to our children.  There is no joy without love. How will we help our children see that Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel is right? There is no greater holidays than Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur. We should not cover this up. Love reigns supreme.


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