Judaism is in trouble. More and more of the unacceptable is being done and said in its name. This causes not only infinite damage to Judaism’s great message but also a terrible desecration of God’s name. What’s worse is that it’s being displayed in front of millions of non-Jews,  many of whom are repelled when they witness terrible scenes in which Jews attack each other in the name of Judaism. While it cannot be denied that anti-Semitism plays a role and tends to blow the picture out of proportion, it is an unfortunate fact that much of it is based on truth. Jews and non-Jews alike are dumbfounded when they read the most shocking comments made by some rabbis, demonstrating gross arrogance and discrimination. Even worse, many publicised rabbinical decisions also seem to lack all moral integrity.

Twenty years ago, Yigal Amir assassinated Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in the name of Halacha (Jewish law), claiming that the prime minister was a rodef (someone who is attempting or planning to murder) because he put all citizens of the State of Israel in mortal danger once he participated in the 1993 Oslo accords. Amir therefore believed that the prime minister deserved the death penalty according to Jewish Law. In 1994, Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Arabs in a mosque in Chevron because he believed that Judaism obligated him to wreak havoc in order to ensure that Arabs would stop their terrorist attacks, which had by then killed thousands of Jews. Several years ago, the book Torat HaMelech was published. Its authors, learned rabbis, argued that it was permissible to kill non-Jews, even without proper trial, once they have become a serious potential security threat to Jews. And so on.

One wonders how it is possible for such ideas to be expressed, or carried out, in the name of Judaism and Jewish law. Anyone who has the slightest knowledge of Judaism is fully aware that nothing within genuine Jewish law could condone, or even suggest such outlandish ideas and immoral acts.

Why does this happen?

Throughout the years, several rabbinical authorities have made major, dangerous mistakes by reducing Judaism to solely a matter of law, a kind of Pan-Halacha. They sincerely believed that Judaism consisted only of rigid rules. In this way, they are paradoxically similar to Spinoza, who was of this opinion and therefore rejected Judaism, calling it obsessive, a type of behaviorism, and an extreme form of legalism (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus III, IV and XIII, for example). That Spinoza made this claim is one thing, but the fact that these learned rabbis agreed with him is more than a sorry state of affairs. It is an unforgivable blunder. Nothing is further removed from the truth than turning Judaism into a legal religious system without spirit, poetry and musical vibrations. This is proven by the nearly infinite amount of religious Jewish literature that deals with non-halachic matters.

The main reason for this terrible mistake is that these rabbis failed to study the basic moral values of Judaism as they appear in the book of Bereishit (Genesis). As is well known, with the exception of a few cases, this book does not contain laws; it is mainly narrative. To appreciate this, one needs to consider the following.

In this first biblical book, we encounter Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov as the foremost players. They are considered the first Jews in history. But this makes little sense. How could they have been Jews if the Torah was only given hundreds of years later to Moshe at Mount Sinai? Would it not have been logical to have given the Torah to Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, and their wives long before Moshe? Only upon receiving the Torah would they have been real Jews! So why was it withheld from them? (Chazal [See Mishnah Kiddushin 4:14] state that they did observe the commandments. For a discussion, see Talmudic Encyclopedia, vol. 1, pp. 36-37.)

The answer is most critical. No law, including divine, can function if it is not preceded by a narrative of the human moral condition and the introduction of basic moral and religious values. These values cannot be given; they must develop within, through life experience. Such values need to develop gradually, on an existential level, shaped by innate values that God grants to each person the moment they are born; a kind of categorical imperative in the soul of man.

It is for this reason that God did not give the laws of the Torah to the patriarchs. First there was a need to learn through personal trials and tribulations. The patriarchs and matriarchs needed to see with their own eyes what happens when mankind is not governed by law. But above all, they had to become aware of basic moral values, such as the fact that all human beings are created in the image of God, that all men are equal, that human life is holy, and that there is only one God Who is at the root of all morality.

It was after the existential, moral turmoil in which Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov frequently found themselves, and their often problematic encounters with God, that a virtuous and religious awareness was born. This consciousness continued to work its way through the bondage in Egypt, the Exodus and the splitting of the Reed Sea. Only at that point was there a chance that the law could be received, and be beneficial, when given at Sinai.

The foremost point of departure in any halachic decision must be that all men are created in the image of God and that all human life is holy. Halacha should surely allow for the Jews to be different from other nations, but only as long as it realizes that other nations can make contributions that Jews cannot. (See Or HaChaim’s commentary on Shemot 18:21, toward the end. See, also, Thoughts to Ponder 284 – Moshe’s Fatigue and the Need for a Gentile’s Advice.)  For Jews to be the chosen people they need to acknowledge that they have an obligation to inspire the world, as teachers inspire students even while recognizing that the students may be more gifted than they are.

It cannot be denied that throughout our long history laws have appeared that have not always lived up to these standards. Even biblical laws seem to have violated this principle on several occasions, demanding that Jews show no mercy for some gentile nations that dwelled near the land of Israel during biblical times (Devarim 7:1-2). But a closer look makes it clear that these laws were contrary to the original divine plan and reveal some kind of divine concession to highly unfortunate circumstances. The laws in question were meant to deal with these nations’ ongoing violence, immorality and virulent anti-Semitism, which had to be dealt with so that Jews could survive and uphold moral standards for the good of all mankind (1).

The Sages struggled with, re-interpreted and sometimes even abolished these laws because they understood that without the moral religious values of SeferBereishit, halachic chaos would reign and grave injustices would be done.

One of the greatest tragedies of Judaism in modern times is that certain halachic authorities, as well as people like Yigal Amir and Baruch Goldstein, forgot to study the first book of the Torah. They have become so dedicated to the letter of the law that they have done the inconceivable and have caused the degradation of Halacha.

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  1. Many rabbinical laws were instituted for similar reasons. They were mainly introduced as protective measures to ensure that Jews would not suffer at the hands of anti-Semitism. At other times, laws were introduced to counter assimilation and non-Jewish undesirable influences. These laws seem to discriminate against gentiles and indeed some halachic authorities and thinkers believe this to be the case. I believe, however, that these laws were originally meant to protest against gentiles, such as the Nazis, who had low moral standards or were committed criminals. These laws did not relate to well-mannered non-Jews. See the many observations of the great Talmudic commentator Menachem Meiri (1249-1316) in Beit HaBechirah – for example, his commentary on Sanhedrin 57a and Avodah Zarah 2a. Surely these laws should be abolished because they run contrary to the principle of divine equality as taught by the Torah. Perhaps any law that gives the impression that non-Jews are discriminated against, such as the law that non-Jews are allowed to do some work for Jews on Shabbat (the “Shabbos goy”), should be abolished, unless Jews will do certain work for gentiles that can’t be done by them on certain occasions. The fact that the State of Israel is still dependent on the “Shabbos goy” is highly problematic and inconsistent with the principle of national independence. Daring and innovative rabbinical decisions are far overdue. Violating Shabbat to save non-Jews is an absolute obligation, notwithstanding the fact that some authorities have questioned this. There is no doubt that Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov would have done so. See Netziv’s observations in his introduction to Bereishit, Ha’amek Davar.

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