Shammai Engelmayer
Shammai Engelmayer

A tragic truth revealed on Facebook

There is a segment of the Jewish world that either does not understand what God’s Torah is all about, or does not want to understand. This was highlighted by a Facebook posting over the Memorial Day weekend that gathered much support.

Particularly revealing of this post’s warped view of the Jewish role in the world was its attack on the “progressive politics” of a kind espoused in this column, which the poster wrote is “a primary factor” both in the rise in anti-Semitism in general and in the “self-loathing Jewish trend” among those Jews who criticize Israel’s policies. Advocates for issues of social justice, the poster claimed, provide “tacit support” to such people as New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, giving her a mandate to promote her own brand of anti-Semitism.

The poster’s attack on “so called progressive politics” would be laughable if it did not expose the gross misperception of Torah law underlying its words.

To advocate for better health care for all, for equality in education and in employment, for better gun control laws, for criminal justice reforms, for more affordable housing, for more humane immigration laws, and for woman’s reproductive rights is not being “progressive,” it is taking the words of Torah seriously, something the poster (who is Orthodox) and those who seconded the post apparently do not. (What the poster decries as “progressive” are issues advocated by Uri L’Tzedek, the Orthodox social justice organization I urge everyone of every stream to support. It proudly proclaims being “guided by Torah values and dedicated to combating suffering and oppression,” something incumbent on all Jews)

To believe that Torah law is all about ritual and nothing else is woefully wrong, as our prophets made clear, but, like our ancestors in biblical times, people such as the poster are loathe to pay heed. Lamented God through Jeremiah: “Although I kept sending all My servants, the prophets, to them daily and persistently, they would not listen to Me or give ear. They stiffened their necks, they acted worse than their fathers.” (See Jeremiah 7:22-26.)

Isaiah, quoting God, said ritual alone is worthless: “Who asked that of you? Trample My courts no more…. Though you pray at length, I will not listen…. Cease to do evil; learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow….Observe what is right and do what is just.” (See Isaiah 1:11-17, and 56:1.)

Said Amos in God’s Name, “I loathe, I spurn your festivals….Spare Me the sound of your hymns…. But let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream.” (See Amos 5:23-24.)

Malachi, quoting God, railed against those “who swear falsely, who cheat laborers of their hire, and who subvert [the cause of] the widow, orphan, and stranger…. [Rather,] be mindful of the Torah of My servant Moses, whom I charged at Horeb with laws and rules for all Israel.” (See Malachi 3:5,22.)

Then there is the prophet Micah: “He has told you, O man, what is good, And what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God.” (See Micah 6:8.)

What, then, is it that “the Lord requires of you”? For that, we need only look in “the Torah of My servant Moses, whom I charged at Horeb with laws and rules for all Israel” — for all Israel.

• In Leviticus 19:3, we are told: “You shall each revere his [or her] mother, and his [or her] father….” Then, in verse 32, it tells us to “rise up before the graying head, and honor the face of the old….” So advocating better care for all elderly people whoever they may be is not “progressive,” it is Torah law.

• In Deuteronomy 24:11, we are told: “When you make any loan to your countryman, you must not enter his [or her] house to seize his [or her] pledge. You must remain outside, while the debtor brings the pledge to you.” That is actually a law about protecting a person’s privacy. So advocating to protect the privacy rights of all people is not “progressive,” it is Torah law.

• In Leviticus 19:13, we are told: “The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning.” Deuteronomy 24:15 explains why, “for he is needy and urgently depends on it.” Many people live from paycheck to paycheck, some even from day to day (something those who are comfortably well off too often forget), so advocating for fair labor laws and fair compensation for a person’s labor, is not “progressive,” it is Torah law.

• In Deuteronomy 22:8, the law of the parapet, as noted in many past columns, is actually a law about taking safety precautions to protect human life. So advocating for better safety laws in the workplace, or for more effective gun control (every day, 22 children up to 17 years old are shot in the United States, and five of them die), is not “progressive,” it is Torah law.

• Deuteronomy 22:8 is among the Torah’s laws requiring us to protect k’vod ha-b’riot, human dignity generally. Maimonides, the Rambam, said we all “must be mindful of [k’vod ha-b’riot] because [our] main concern must be to solely enhance the glory of God” by honoring the Torah God gave us. “And there is no honor given to the Torah but to do according to its laws and judgments.” So advocating for laws protecting human dignity generally is not “progressive,” it is Torah law.

• Based on the Torah’s requirements for choosing a king in Deuteronomy 17, the Talmud quotes the sage Rabbi Yitzchak as saying: “One may only appoint a leader over a community if the community approves of the appointment.” (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Berachot 55a.) As we know, voting rights are under assault in many states. So advocating for every adult’s right to vote is not “progressive,” it is Torah law.

That everyone should have the right to vote, not just a select few, can be seen in an opinion issued in 1920 by Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Chai Uziel, who would later become the Sephardi chief rabbi of the Yishuv, the Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel, and in the first five years of the State of Israel. At issue was whether women should have the right to vote in elections held by the Yishuv, but what he had to say applies to everyone else, as well. Everyone, he wrote, must “accept the authority of these [elected] representatives…. How then can one simultaneously pull the rope from both ends: lay upon them the duty to obey those elected by the people, yet deny them the right to vote in the elections?”

None of these laws apparently resonate with the poster or those who seconded the post, or, sadly, with many others on the religious right. Some explain it away by saying that the Torah’s laws do not apply to our relationship to anyone but other Jews. This is a calumny against God and His Torah.

In Genesis 18, God tells us why He chose Abraham to found our nation: “For I know him, that he will teach his posterity to do tzedakah u’mishpat,” to do what is righteous and just. Doing tzedakah u’mishpat is the underpinning of the Jewish mission to the world.

In the words of the late Rabbi Aharon Soloveichik, “Mishpat and tzedek both emanate from the doctrine of human rights…; the notion of rights [tzedek] comes first and the notion of duties [mishpat] second….[The] Torah does not make a distinction between Jews and non-Jews within the realm of mishpat and tzedek…. A Jew should always identify with the cause of defending the aggrieved, whosoever the aggrieved may be, just as the concept of tzedek is to be applied uniformly to all humans regardless of race or creed.” (See his “Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind: Civil Rights and the Dignity of Man,” pages 64-67.)

There is nothing “progressive” about such politics. Advocating such issues is driven by an understanding of the Torah’s commandments and the mission of our people (as Uri L’Tzedek so forcefully advocates). That mission is to be a “kingdom of priests and holy nation,” charged with the task of helping to make this a better world by the example of our own lives — a world the Torah sees as a just, equitable, caring world.

This is not a “progressive” agenda; it is the agenda of the One who gave us that mission and it should be the agenda of every Jew. As the psalmist said, “Happy is he who is thoughtful of the wretched; in bad times may the Lord keep him from harm.” (See Psalm 41:2.)

That some in the Jewish world have lost sight of this is a great tragedy.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at www.shammai.org.
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