From the Sacred Society to a Greater Society
Thoughts on Kedoshim
The Dead Sea Scrolls are now on display at the California Science Center. We owe so very much to the members of the society at Qumran, where these scrolls were found. It was their dedication to writing the words of the prophets as well as the words of later teachers that has given us an invaluable window on the world of Judaism in antiquity.
These people, identified with the Essenes and other groups of the period, were exemplars of piety- frumkeit, to use the Yiddish expression. So frum, that they refused to get married, bathed daily to remain pure, devoted themselves to poverty and acts of charity. They refused to send sacrifices to the Temple in Jerusalem, because it was, in their eyes, impure.They disassociated themselves from their fellow Jews, whom they saw as “ The Children of Darkness” or the “ Children of the Worthless One.”
You might think that they would gain the respect of the great scholars for their outstanding idealism. However, the Rabbis denounced anyone who refused intentionally to have marital relations and the great Hillel warned, probably with such Jews in mind,” Do not withdraw from the community, do not trust in yourself until the day of your death, do not judge your fellow until you have put yourself in his place.( Avoth 2:5) It was a direct challenge to those who considered themselves holier than the rest.
The deserts around Judea in the years that followed were filled with Christian monasteries carved into the cliffs hundreds of feet up the side of inaccessible mountains. The Christian monks, in many ways, followed in the path of these Jewish monks.
Yet Jewish monasteries disappeared and Qumran was left aruins, unknown till a shepherd stumbled across it in 1946.
What did we Jews do then, in the centuries before and after and during that gave us our sense of the sacred, without running off into the desert. We definitely did not take the advice of Hamlet to Ophelia,” Get Thee to a Nunnery”. No Ashram, no Zen meditation in splendid isolation.
No, we created families, we created communities, and we worked in town and country.
Our path to sanctity is laid out in this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, ( Lev 19 ). Kedoshim Tihyu ,“You shall be Holy because I , the Lord your God, am Holy.” It then goes on with a chain of social laws, laws of fairness, laws of justice, as well as laws of religious obligation.
Holiness was to be found in the realities of society, with all its grit and dirt.
We Jews are very sensitive as a result to social issues and we sometimes identify Judaism with social justice, often to the exclusion of other values.
I confess that like other young Jews of my generation, I flirted with socialism. At one time, that was the route that all Jews took.
When I was in Israel, I had worked for Israel's Labor Federation, the Histadrut, which was closely aligned with the Labor party. I ran a program for adult Jewish studies under their auspices At one time, every institution in Israel was Labor based, socialist in orientation, if not to some extent also Marxist.
How times have changed. Do you realize that I was among the last of the " Red Rabbis"? The last May Day parade in Israel, organized by the Labor Federation, was in 1988, and I marched under the red banner, the international socialist banner, “Worker’s of the World Unite” banner of the Israeli Histadrut!
I also organized a Passover Seder at Bet Berl, the college of the Labor movement, and the Israeli newspapers wrote of the Secretary-General of the labor Federation, that he was at our Seder, among the adumim, among the Reds at Bet Berl.
Then the Soviet Union fell, and the color red has fallen with it. ( I could never stand the current usage of red for Republican and blue for Democrat, a convention caused by cartographers, since it distorts the historic connection of the colors, red for socialists, white for royalist, black for anarchist and so forth. But what do map drawers and news analysts know of history!)
Since then, the Red banner has been changed to red and blue, and now, all blue and the May Day parades have faded into history. Labor Party is no longer labor. There is little economic difference in Israel between the two parties .
Tempus mutandis-the times change everywhere.
It is true that the strategies and theories that underlie these ideals of social justice- these controlled societies and central planned economies proved to be great social disasters or the world scene and even here, in the US, the image of a Great Society has not come to be, despite vast sums of money pumped n.
Nevertheless, the themes of the books of the Torah still disturb us. We can’t run off to the desert. We have neither Dead Sea sects nor grand revolutionary dreams. How then do we keep alive the sense of Kedoshim in society that of necessity, in order to be a free society, must also be a market society, a society that inevitably results in inequalities? How do we keep such a society form devouring itself?
Do we, as Jews, do we still have a social plank today?
When I worked for the Histadrut, I tried to create a statement for a foundation of social justice on the basis of Jewish tradition, not on the basis of Marx, nor Lenin, but, to quote one of our old members Max Cukier, a declaration he heard from David ben Gurion," Jewish socialism is not from Marx-- it is from Isaiah."
What I sought was a Jewish and Judaic basis for a true society, not a Republican, not a Democratic, not capitalist, not socialist-but a posture rooted in Jewish social ethos.
Where do we begin? What is our Jewish social platform?
We can begin it with this week’s Torah portion. Our founding principal is in this very portion:.Ve ahavta lereekha kamocha-- you shall love your neighbor as yourself. As I pointed out last week, it extends to the stranger who seeks to live among us as well and adopts our laws and society. (Lev 19).Our sage, Rabbi Akiba, adopted this verse as the great principal of the Torah.
His colleague, Ben Azzai, insisted on another principal, which does not contradict, but really supplements this, from the book of Genesis,” Man and woman are created in the image of God.”
In both cases, we premise our social concern on the sanctity and holiness of the individual human being. This is very different from the premise of Karl Marx, very different, premise in which class and production are the only bases of human value.
We do have a special sense of responsibility for our fellow Jews, but that does not exclude the rest of humanity. The Haftarah which we read today reminds us, in the words of the prophet, Amos," Are you not like the Ethiopians unto me"-- God is God of all nations, the mover of history for all peoples.
From the Jewish perspective, we carry a tremendous responsibility for the life and well-being of each person. Our Torah portion commands us," Do not stand by idly over your brother's blood."
Do you recall history's first recorded homicide? It was the case of God vs Cain, Cain who killed Abel, Cain who shirked responsibility, Cain, who asked “Am I my brother’s keeper."
The foundation for Jewish judicial procedure is found in the Mishna, in the tractate Sanhedrin, the court system. It is there, in the oath administered to witnesses, that we are told,
" Whosoever destroys one life, it is as if he destroyed an entire world-- but whosoever saves one life, it is as if he saved an entire world." (This is a position stated in the Quran)
That same Mishna reminds us that each of us is of such great value, that we must say
" For my sake the world was created." For my sake and there I am therefore responsible for this world. I can't shirk off my responsibility on someone else.
That same Mishna takes as its premise the uniqueness of each one of us . The world, for practical purposes, may well be broken up into class, into sexes, into races, into nations--but none of us is forced to choose right or wrong because of our birth. Instead, our sages were amazed at the uniqueness and variation of the human species, and so that Mishna declares: Thus, all mortals are created in the image of the first man, all share that same common human origin, yet no two faces and no two minds are alike. Therefore, must each one say," For my sake the world was created."
Since we are each in the divine image, each one of us unique, we are in principal free from human bondage, servants only to God.
This freedom, for the Jew, is summed up in individual responsibility for one's actions.
We Jews have a theory of government, as well. The Torah is the first document in history to limit the power of the Kings, and the Talmud provides the basis for a legislative body in the form of the Sanhedrin, and the grounds for majority rule are present in Jewish jurisprudence. The concept of rule of society by law is deeply imbedded in every page of Jewish history. " Zedek Zedek tirdof, You shall pursue justice, that you may inherit the land which the Lord has given you."
It is a law which must be applied equally, as the Torah dictates, without regard to wealth, without regard to country of origin," One law shall you have, for the citizen and for the stranger who lives in your midst."
Finally, throughout the Torah and Rabbinic rulings, with all the exhortations to personal responsibility which I mentioned, with all that, Jewish teachings also recognize that human beings, by nature, look out for themselves alone. Exhortations to be charitable and pious platitudes do not solve the problems of society.
We know that we can’t create an absolutely equal society. Every attempt to do so has been drenched with blood and has bound people in immense political, social and physical chains, far worse than the chains of capitalism. Nevertheless, we are aware that when we give tzedakah, our sages tell us, we do not expect to get a thanks—because, they remind us, we are protecting our own interests—we could always be next. When we create a fair society, we are not just being nice--we are facing the truth that our sages knew, that each one of us has the responsibility to keep our neighbors from hitting that bottom because we could also be on the bottom.
The challenge to the leaders of our government is to address such issues, both from the Republican and from the Democratic sides of the aisle, and it is our position, as Jews, to help both parties keep their eyes on the ball.
Thus words for all, from Moses, from the book of Deuteronomy :
You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless; you shall not take a widow's garment in pawn. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there...the forgotten sheaf in the field, the fruit of the olive tree...the grapes of your vineyard...it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow- Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt."
May we always remember what we, as individuals and as Jews , owe our fellow human beings, that, in Moses words, The Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings and we can be “ Kedoshim”, Holy as a people. Amen.