Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Put Halachah in the Back of the Bus

In September 2011, the Jewish Journal wrote an article about the anti-snitch rule prominent among Orthodox rabbis: "Jewish law goes to court"

In the Journal: "The rules of mesira still carry force within the Orthodox world, owing both to the inviolability of the concept’s talmudic origins and the insular nature of many Orthodox communities."

Dennis Prager ("Can Halachah Ever Be Wrong?") asks a profound, and for many a troubling question:

"Can Halachah [Jewish Law, specifically the oral commentaries for the Torah] ever be wrong?"
He points out the dysfunctional and obsolete rules that no longer have any reason or use in our day, like withholding a item distributed by a non-Jew without payment, or not permitting men to listen to the voice of a woman -- if such a rule were truly in line with the will of the Divine, then Adam would have sinned long before he ate the forbidden fruit!

Susan Freudenheim ("The Back of the Bus"), points out other immoral outcomes of halachah followed strictly to the letter. In Israel, Charedi Jews, the ultra-Orthodox, have begun enforcing segregation of the sexes on public transportation in Israel. Other Charedi Jews have spit on young women who wear short skirts and "revealing" sleeves.

This conduct is reprehensible, certainly. Yet strict adherents to halachah will charge, as Prager noted in his piece, that "it is halachah -- not 'humanity,' or common sense, or conscience -- that determines what is right."

Yet what about the Scriptures themselves, without Rabbinical or historical commentary -- what do they say?

I believe that the histories and the prophets can be of some assistance in detailing how best to navigate to what extent we should live by the letter of God's Law:

The last judge Samuel denounced King Saul for his open rebellion against the commandment of the Lord, finally declaring the Lord's break with Saul's line, for Saul had once again refused to heed His instruction:

"And Samuel said, Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.

"For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king." (1 Samuel 15: 22-23)

Saul's successor King David was also confronted by a prophet of God for his sin with Bathsheba, for David had slept with another man's wife and then had her lawful husband killed in battle:

"And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man. Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, I anointed thee king over Israel, and I delivered thee out of the hand of Saul;

"And I gave thee thy master's house, and thy master's wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto thee such and such things.

"Wherefore hast thou despised the commandment of the LORD, to do evil in his sight? thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon.

"Now therefore the sword shall never depart from thine house; because thou hast despised me, and hast taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be thy wife." (2 Samuel 12:7-10)

However, unlike Saul, David did not hide or excuse his sin. He confessed it openly, and the Lord forgave him. Normally, any Israelite caught in the double offense of adultery and murder would have been twice stoned to death. Yet the Lord demonstrates time and again throughout His Word that He is merciful, slow to anger, rich in kindness (cf Psalm 86:15). When David confessed his sin, the Lord relented in the face of David's repentance:

"And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the LORD. And Nathan said unto David, The LORD also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die." (2 Samuel 12:13)

Despite the gross and open iniquity of Beloved King David, the Lord had mercy upon Him.

One of the minor prophets also relates the Lord's importance and preeminence of grace over law:

"Therefore have I hewed them by the prophets; I have slain them by the words of my mouth: and thy judgments are as the light that goeth forth.

"For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings." (Hosea 6:6)

This passage is telling, not just for the prominence that the Lord gives to mercy and personal relationship to Him above rule-keeping, but that the Lord relates the words of the prophets, the words from His own mouth, as that which actually kill a man. No one can live by God's law, a composite whole that demands perfection from man who is imperfect, lost in sin, conceived in iniquity.

The same desire of God was later quoted by Jesus of Nazareth to refute the Pharisees, the Charedi Jews of the Ancient World. Always seeking to make a public example of Jesus (who came to fulfil the law, as man could never be justified by his own adherence to God's statutes), the Pharisees criticized Jesus' unlawful behavior. While eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus put to shame their shameful scolding:

"And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples.

"And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?

"But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.

"But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (Matthew 9: 10-13)

In effect, because no one is good (cf Psalm 14:3), we are all in need of repentance, all of us need grace. Strict law-keeping ruins even the best of us, but God's grace saves even the worst of us.

When the Pharisees chided Jesus and His disciples for picking corn for food on the Sabbath day, Jesus replied:

"But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless." (Matthew 12:7)

Ultimately, Halachah strictly observed to the hurt of others, refutes the greatest of the commandments:

"Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD:

"And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might." (Deuteronomy 6: 4-5)


"Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD." (Leviticus 19:18)

Therefore, forcing women to sit in the back of the bus, spitting on women wearing different costume of clothing against strict Rabbinical law, and refusing to testify against a suspected thief: how does this conduct uphold the Royal law of Shema Shema? Or how does refusing to return an item mistakenly given to a Jew by a non-Jew absolve an observant adherent of halachah from returning said item? Or from testifying in a gentile court? Moses commanded merciful treatment to strangers, read Gentiles:

"Also thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt." (Exodus 23:9)

We are all called to love our neighbor, Jew or Gentile.

Ultra-Orthodoxy is sacrifice, to be certain, but those who practice such extremism are not obedient, nor are they merciful. Their fanatical adherence is not just disgraceful to Judaism, but it is displeasing to the Lord!

Halachah, its strict adherence and inviolate respect, must be sent to the back of the bus! Let us love the Lord with our hearts, not just our lips, not just going through the motions, and certainly not in the motions and recriminations of shame which have dominated the censorious conduct of ultra-Orthodox zealots.

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