Saturday, October 17, 2009

Religion as a moral force in the world?

I had a good amount of free time this summer.

So in addition to eating Vegetarian Chinese food with friends, watching a Netflix movie per day and reading a good amount of 20th century Christian philosophy, I worked on an academic project. My dad said that basically I was writing a Senior Thesis for fun. I prefer to think of it as a super-senior thesis. No blue sweatshirts this time, though.

The project revolves around the central thesis that American rabbis during World War II framed the moral anarchy of the world occurring due to a lack of religion in the world. All of this has an underlying assumption that religion is a moral force in the world which has lasting consequences.

But what does that mean for us? I relate this idea both in terms of mitzvot ben adam l'haveiro and mitzvot ben adam l'makom — interpersonal commandments of action and religious ritual between humans and God. Does observing the laws of Shabbat, not grinding pepper for example, contribute to a worldview of religious discourse which makes the world a better place?

Do prayers affect the world? This could be framed either in a theurgic sense, if prayers literally affect God and the course of history; alternatively it could be framed to say that prayers affect an individual's outlook on the world and therefore how she interacts with others and the world writ-large (these idea are by no means mutually exclusive).

Over the course of several posts I will explore this notion — the ethical imperative in Judaism — and religion more broadly, as well. How does a religious worldview affect the individual, and the community in turn, toward mandating living in an ethical world? Does it? In what way?

Certainly the variety of non-profits, synagogues, Hillels and beyond that are doing innovative work in the field of social action are a part of this narrative. But as you'll see in this post, I think this idea extends beyond that, as well.

What is the language that is used in their work? In the work that you do?

Below is a devar torah that I wrote for Parshat Ki Teze (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19). There will be more on this topic to come.

וְעָשִׂיתָ מַעֲקֶה לְגַגֶּךָ
You shall make a parapet for your roof

During World War II, American rabbis overwhelmingly framed the evils of the war as a response to a certain moral vacuum in the world. Essentially, as the religious leadership itself framed it, rabbis were not doing their jobs. Specifically because there was a lack of engagement in religious life during the twenties and thirties, many religious leaders argued, moral chaos was allowed to reign. Religion thus served as a moral safeguard for civilization writ-large. To protect the peace to come, and indeed actively to fight fundamentalism, people needed to be religious, to evoke religious values — and rabbis and ministers had an obligation to advocate for this on the ground.

A few examples of such rhetoric, firstly from Rabbi Milton Steinberg:

A confident hope, an assurance of final victory over evil are the last consequences of God faith, to those who hold it fast. On the heart of the agnostic and atheist there lurks forever a haunting grisly fear: Since all is chance, our ideals too are chance…Behind him, in him, beside him and before works that Power that drives the universe which is also a Power that makes for righteousness. So much then can religious faith achieve against the experience of evil. It can open our eyes, until, like Elisha’s lad, we see the “chariots of fire” which hitherto were invisible to us.; it can cause us to hear the cheering emboldening words: “Fear not, for they that are with us are more than they that are with them.”1

Another, from Rabbi Leon Lang, chairman of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly from 1941-1943:

Wherever the sovereignty of God is acknowledged, the preservation and enhancement of human life as a supreme value becomes the central motif of the entire pattern of religious and moral ideas and ideals by which human relationships are to be governed. Surely this is the very core of religious teaching and religious practice in Judaism. Neo-paganism of our day, fascism, totalitarianism or whatever else it may be labeled, is the direct challenge and negation of this supreme value. Judaism, in the contemporary scene, must gird itself to combat these falsehoods and their modern social implications with no less zeal than did Israel’s prophets and sages when they faced the more primitive forms of paganism.2

My point here is not to suggest a theology for evil, and certainly not of the Holocaust (historically speaking, it must also be noted these rabbis were responding to the Nazi war machine and not the genocide). But I relate here that religion is framed as a moral force in the universe; religious leaders state explicitly that without a dynamic and engaging religious life in communities around the world, there would be a certain moral anarchy.

I note this because in all of my time in the Jewish community, I don’t know that I have ever heard Judaism framed explicitly as a moral force in either a community’s or an individual’s life. Quite frankly, in the contemporary age, when I do hear religion spoken about in such terms, I often cringe because of the certain political bent and fundamentalist principles the words evoke.

Objectively speaking, ideologically Judaism issues moral imperatives. But in 2009, what is the language that the ideological center should use? Is this an emphasis that we should make?

This week’s parsha, Ki Teze, presents nearly one-eighth of the Torah’s 613 commandments (72 according to Rambam and 74 according to Sefer HaHinukh). Among them is the commandment to build a parapet for one’s roof. Situated, between the commandments of “Shiluakh haken” (sending away the mother bird before taking her eggs) and the prohibition against sowing the field with two types of seeds (kilayim), the commandment of building a parapet on the top of one’s house reads: “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you bring no blood upon your house, lest anyone fall from it” (Deuteronomy 22:8).

The world’s first building codes; you are responsible for potential accidental harm of the other. By building a fence around the roof of a building, you are saving lives. Even long after construction, the builder is responsible for negligence if he/she did not live up to her/his responsibilities for responding to the safety code during the project. As Don Isaac Abravanal notes (15th c. Spain), this is a practical application of Leviticus 19’s declaration of “lo ta'amod al dam reecha” (You shall not stand by the blood of your fellow human).

The Rambam, in turn provides a unique codification of the law:

“Both the roof and any other object of potential danger, by which it is likely that a person could be fatally injured, require that the owner take action... just as the Torah commands us to make a fence on the roof... and so, too, regarding any obstacle which could cause mortal danger, one, not just the owner, has a positive commandment to remove it... if one does not remove it but leaves those obstacles constituting potential danger, one transgresses a positive commandment and negates a negative commandment 'Thou shall not spill blood' (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Murderer and Protecting Life, 11:4)."3

I first studied this text in depth with participants on an American Jewish World Service trip to Uganda. As Aaron Dorfman of AJWS notes, it is not such a big step to suggest that this law does not apply only to buildings, but to any place in our lives where there can be potential danger.4

In American Civil law, this applies to everything from covering unused swimming pools to Seinfeld’s parody of why every coffee cup in the United States now reads “Caution, Hot Contents.” The Rambam extends the responsibility, though, beyond one’s own property to any impediment with which one comes into contact. If one even knows about potential harm, from any source, it seems, she has the obligation to prevent it from happening. In a world of 24-hour media, this is quite a responsibility.

The Hassidic master, Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk (18th c. Poland), in turn, interprets the verse on the level of remez and sod. Rebbe Elimelech, in his collection Noam Elimelech, posits that the Torah represents the roof of the house, for just as the roof protects and shades the house, so too does the Torah protect and shade the individual. And thus, one must study subserviently, lest the study lead one to be haughty and prideful. The Torah’s power, in essence, has the potential to be a protection for one’s life, and the very life of society, it seems, but only if people are wary of the power it wields, and in turn, one's own temptations. Thus, by establishing a maakah, a parapet, the individual is able to engage fully in the powers of Torah and engage them in her life and the life of society.5

Rebbe Elimelech continues the explication of the verse, noting the plurality of the word “damim,” an oddity in the Torah (it occurs four times). He suggests that one should not have two types of “damim” in her house, just one power, that of God. In a complete reversal of the original pasuk, blood in this case is deemed a positive force. Thus, one must have one dam in the house, but not damim, as the verse warns.

For even if there are two paths which ultimately lead to the same outcome — one the path of God and Torah, a religious one, and the other a secular path, let us say that of politics, for example — Rebbe Elimelech states that one will surely fall and be thrown from the roof if the path were not entrenched in Torah.6

Reformulated, Rebbe Elimelech suggests that only a religious worldview is sustainable in crafting and maintaining an existential peace. The Torah does not guarantee, this mind you — as we see all too well and often in the contemporary world. But should we assemble ma'akot in our lives, Judaism, as a religion and an all encompassing civilization — at least for Jews — is the only path toward a world of human vitality. Through the engaging in the particular, we reach toward the universal.

Indeed as the aforementioned rabbis of the forties would suggest, ensuring a vital religious life in America was a positive commandment, and only through this religious engagement would a sustainable peace thrive. Not to do so would violate a negative commandment, where a certain chaos would reign. Democratic ideals would not be enough to ensure moral grandeur; in fact they necessarily were not sustainable on their own.

I end with a series of questions: In 2009, does the religious center have a message that Judaism is a vital moral force in the world? Should we? If so, what is some language to contextualize the discussion and bring it to a more tachlis level (or perhaps we want to leave it lofty?) Have you heard this message at any time in your life? None of these questions are rhetorical — I would like to hear your opinion.

1 Steinberg, “Toward a rehabilitation of the word ‘faith,’” The Reconstructionist, Volume VIII, April 1, 1942, 16

2 R.A., Proceedings, 1942, 58-59

3 אחד הגג ואחד כל דבר שיש בו סכנה וראוי שיכשל בו אדם וימות כגון שהיתה לו באר או בור בחצירו בין שיש בהן מים בין שאין בהן מים חייב לעשות להן חוליה גבוהה עשרה טפחים או לעשות לה כסוי כדי שלא יפול בה אדם וימות. וכן כל מכשול שיש בו סכנת נפשות מצות עשה להסירו ולהשמר ממנו ולהזהר בדבר יפה יפה שנ' +דברים ד' ט'+ השמר לך ושמור נפשך, ואם לא הסיר, והניח המכשולות המביאין לידי סכנה, ביטל מצות עשה ועבר על לא תשים דמים. (משנה תורה, הלכות רוצח ושמירת הנפש י''א:ד')

4 It happens that Aaron Dorfman of AJWS discusses this same verse on My Jewish Learning this week. I would recommend looking at it.

5 I would like to note the parallels between this interpretation and the religious messages in Lord of the Rings.

6 Here is the full text of Rebbe Elimelech's interpretation, found in Noam Elimelech, on Devarim 22:8:
וקמת ועלית אל המקום, רצה לומר אל הצדיק השופט אמת שבימיך ועשית על פי הדבר אשר יגידו לך כפשוטו וזהו (דברים כב, ח) ועשית מעקה לגגך ולא תשים דמים בביתך דהתורה הקדושה נקראת בשם גג: דהגג הוא המגין על הבית והתורה מגינה ומצלה האדם וצריך לזה שיהיה בהכנעה שלא יהא לימודו להתפאר ולהתגאות בפני בני אדם וזהו מעקה לשון עומק והשפלה, דהיינו הכנעה. תשים לגגך, היא התורה. ולא תשים דמים בביתך, פירוש כנ"ל שלא יהא בך שני מיני דמים וכחות רק הכל כח אחד כולו לה' כי יפול הנופל ממנו פירוש כי אף המעשה הטוב אשר תעשה תפול ממך ולא תתקיים ולא תפעול כלל הנופל ממנו, פירוש אשר מן הראוי' היה שעל ידי הדבר הזה יפלו ויושלכו אחרים, דהיינו הדינים והקליפות וחלילה אם יהיה כח אחר מעורב בו תפיל גם אותו הדבר שלא תפעול כלל ולכן צריך האדם לתקן כל אבר ואבר עד אשר יבין בשכלו בעצמו שהוא מחסר בעבודתו וכל מעשיו אינם מתוקנים על מכונם

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