Evolving Morality
Ki Teitzei 
 

The recent news from the Middle East is unbearably painful and tragic. We have been witnessing the radicalization of the Middle East and the strengthening of tribal mentality. There is a return to a literal and fundamentalist understanding of the Koran, one that sanctions the rape of women and young girls and the murder of innocent men.
 
This trend toward fundamentalism is however, not limited to the Muslim world. Within the Haredi - ultra orthodox and Settler communities, there are some who also hold similar radical views and who call for the death of Arabs. They too draw their support from ancient, sacred texts.
 
It is true when our Torah is read literally, without the benefit of commentary, without 2000 years of Rabbinic response and modification of the laws, the horrors we have recently witnessed in Israel become possible. The murder of Shira Banki, a young woman who attended the gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem, by an ultra-orthodox man was a tragic outcome of such thinking and a true desecration of the Torah. The burning of a Jerusalem church in June , a sacred site for Christians, believed to be where Jesus performed the miracle of the fishes and loaves, was evidently perpetrated by religious Jews. The church was spray-painted with the words: u'ma'avir gillulim min ha-aretz. These are the words recited in the Aleinu prayer at every Jewish prayer service, meaning: May idolaters be removed from the earth.
 
There is no question that certain Torah texts and traditional prayers can be used to fuel hatred and violence. However, there has been a long and persistent response through the efforts of our greatest teachers over millennia to follow the heart and reinterpret those profoundly disturbing, inhumane texts that appear in Torah.
One classic example of this kind of spiritual evolution comes from this week's Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, in which a rebellious child is condemned to death. The text reads:
 
If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and who, when they have chastened him, will not listen to them; Then shall his father and his mother lay hold of him, and bring him out to the elders of his city, and to the gate of his place; And they shall say to the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him to death. (Deut. 21:18-21) 
 
In response, the later oral tradition rejects this possibility by creating so many onerous conditions to be met, that it would, in fact be impossible to carry out the prescribed penalty. At times the Rabbis go to the lengths of absurdity to prevent the death penalty, despite the Torah's clear ruling. In the Talmud, Rabbi Yehudah states that in order to accuse a wayward son, the mother would have to be identical to the father in voice, appearance, and height- And what is the reason for this condition? Because the Torah text says "he does not listen to our voice," That implies that the voices of the two parents must be equal and once there is a requirement for the voices to be equal, their appearance and height must also be equal." This, would of course be impossible. In fact, the Talmud records, that there never was a case of a wayward son being stoned to death.
 
Similarly, in this week's portion, the Torah states, "If a girl who is a virgin is betrothed and a man finds her in the city, and lies with her; you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them with stones that they die; the girl, because she did not cry out." Torah explains that since there were no witnesses to her crying out, there is an assumption that this was consensual and she was unfaithful to her betrothed. Nevertheless, the Rabbis during the Talmudic period create such a web of conditions for the adjudication of such a case, that it becomes logistically impossible to issue the death penalty to such a woman.

We cannot change the text of the Torah. We cannot omit disturbing sections, for they are a record of our history, a record of the development of morality, but we must continue the Rabbinic process of interpretation and evolution.
 
So as not to give you a skewed view of this week's Torah portion, I want to make it clear that the majority of the text appears to support the creation of a compassionate society. Repeatedly, the reader is commanded to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger, to preserve the dignity of the poor, to behave with honesty and integrity and to minimize the suffering of animals.
 
In a recent interview, Rabbi Arthur Green stressed the profound need for us to reclaim Judaism from the religious far right, who themselves betray the Rabbinic tradition of compassionate interpretation of the law. He recounts the Talmudic debate between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai concerning the most fundamental and underlying principle of the entire Torah. Many of us are familiar with Rabbi Akiva's response- v'ahavat l'eiakha kamokha- You shall love your neighbor as yourself. But Ben Azzai argued that there was an even more fundamental principle expressed in the Torah, that all human beings are created in the image of the Divine. In fact, the entire project of the Rabbinic period was to uphold this value through the reinterpretation of Torah texts. This has been an ongoing project and we must continue, for the sake of the soul of the Jewish people, and even more so, for the future of humanity. Art Green stated "Any mitzvah that doesn't increase the sense of tzelem Elohim- must be re-examined." That is, any commandment that does not increase the sense that all human beings are created in the image of Divine, must be re-examined.
 
Torah has much to teach, as a reflection of our past, but also as the foundation of an ever-evolving moral code. The process of an unfolding Judaism rooted in the teachings: love of one's neighbor and recognition of the Divine aspect in all human beings is a path to strive for.
 
As this parashah closes, we read these familiar and perplexing statements: 
Remember what Amalek did to you by the way, when you came forth out of Egypt; How he met you by the way, and struck at your rear, all who were feeble behind you, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God. Therefore it shall be, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around, in the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget it.(Deut. 25:17-19)

These statements seem to present a paradox; remember what Amalek did and also blot out the remembrance of Amalek. Taken within the larger context of this portion, it appears to say: Remember what Amalek did to you so that YOU do not become like Amalek and abuse those who are powerless. Remember how your weak and feeble ones were attacked. Now that you are about to enter the land and become an empowered people with your own government and army, remember what it felt like to be powerless and abused. Blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven. Blot out any potential for you to become Amalek.

Create a just and compassionate society for all who dwell with you, just as this portion states several times- Always remember that you were once a stranger in Egypt.
 
May we continue the work to reclaim Judaism as a path for the development of a just and peaceful world. And may we be daring enough to support her ongoing spiritual evolution so that tzelem Elohim, the divinity in all human beings is recognized and cherished .

Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman 
Founder and Executive Director of RIMON 
 
Seeds
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