Engaging Difficult Texts

This week, I contributed the Dvar Torah to American Jewish World Service’s Dvar Tzedek (which we also syndicate on MJL). As per AJWS’s mission, the piece was supposed to explore issues of social justice in the weekly Torah portion.

Initially, I thought I’d gotten lucky being assigned Parshat Shoftim, thinking that…

Parashat Shoftim should be one of the easiest Torah portions to write about for AJWS’ Dvar Tzedek. The parashah begins with the command to appoint judges to execute mishpat tzedek, righteous judgment (Deuteronomy 16:18). Two verses later comes the biblical principle perhaps most frequently cited by activists: “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gave you (Deuteronomy 16:18).”

But the more of the Torah portion I read, the more I felt strange about reading the parshah selectively for social justice themes, as many of Shoftim’s teachings seriously contradict these values. Thus the dilemma I ended up writing about:

We are all aware that when we turn to Jewish tradition for teachings that inspire us to work for social justice, we often turn a blind eye to texts that can inspire the opposite: religious paternalism, inequality, brutal forms of capital punishment, and yes, even race-based genocide.

But is this okay? Can we credibly cite Jewish teachings that encourage a better world when there exist parallel teachings that could lead to a worse one?

My conclusion?

Historically, Jews have not had to worry too much about our racist and anti-social texts because we, as a corporate entity, have not had power. The existence of the State of Israel and the influence wielded by Jews in America and elsewhere in the Diaspora has changed this and upped the ethical ante.

Parashat Shoftim is the perfect reminder that scattered amongst Judaism’s most noble and righteous teachings are passages that are anachronistic at best and immoral at worst. We must identify these teachings–biblical, rabbinic, medieval, and modern. As we engage texts that inspire us to pursue social justice, we must, at the same time, engage those that can inspire violence and oppression.

Whether we condemn these texts or merely note their difficulty, they are our responsibility. If we ignore them and fail to forge communal opinions about them, we risk the possibility of them being resurrected and reclaimed.

Perhaps we can see this consciousness-raising re-examination as the fulfillment of another famous command in Parashat Shoftim: U’Viarta HaRa mi’Kirbekh — You shall purge the evil from your midst.

The full text of the  Dvar Torah is available here.

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