Tikvah Wiener
Head of School of The Idea School, the first project-based learning Jewish high school in America

Building a More Just World

“The battle for existence is hard and unforgiving, but is the only way to maintain life. This struggle eliminates everything that is unfit for life, and selects everything that is able to survive…. These natural laws are incontrovertible; living creatures demonstrate them by their very survival. They are unforgiving. Those who resist them will be wiped out. Biology not only tells about animals and plants, but also shows us the laws we must follow in our lives, and steels our wills to live and fight according to these laws. The meaning of life is struggle. Woe to him who sins against these laws.”

“The person who attempts to fight the iron logic of nature thereby fights the principles he must thank for his life as a human being. To fight against nature is to bring about one’s own destruction.”

The first quotation is from a Nazi biology textbook, and the second is from “Mein Kampf.” Both are quoted in Yuval Noah Harari’s book about the history of humankind, “Sapiens.” Harari categorizes Nazism as a form of humanism — evolutionary humanism. As in other forms of humanism, humankind is at the center, but in Nazism the human at the center is the superhuman Aryan to whom other forms of humanity must bend. The two other kinds of humanism Harari describes are liberal humanism, which is individualistic and whose primary goal is to “protect the inner core and freedom of each individual,” and socialist humanism, whose objective is collective and whose aim is to protect the equality of the species.

Western liberalism obviously is based on the claims that liberal and socialist humanism make about humankind, and Harari contends that these beliefs wouldn’t have happened without monotheistic religions. Without a belief in a God who has asserted that humankind is inherently valuable, it’s difficult to explain why humans are any more significant in the universe than rocks, plants, and animals. Science makes no similar claim: it simply seeks to understand how the world and all that’s in it works.

Harari’s book, well-written and fascinatingly comprehensive, is sharing night-table space right now with another book I’m reading, “Justice in the City” by Aryeh Cohen. That book makes glaring the discrepancy between Nazism and the call for justice that the Torah demands, and it also underscores Harari’s contention that the roots of liberalism are in the Bible. Cohen’s aim is to draw from the Torah, Mishnah, and Talmud in order to show that Judaism demands that we use its precepts to create just cities. While sometimes we may view religion as a collection of esoteric rules, Cohen brings Judaism very much into the civic here and now, by explaining how its laws are designed to force us to heed the call of those who are vulnerable and marginalized and living all around us.

Cohen writes, “I will argue that out of Rabbinic Judaism, a model of responsibility emerges which, while recognizing the poor and homeless in society — citizen and noncitizen — as groups in need of care and deserving of support and shelter, sees the answer also in political terms.”

One of the most compelling examples for me in Cohen’s book is his explanation of the ritual of the eglah arufah, found in Deuteronomy 21. The circumstances that prompt the ritual are that the body of someone who has been killed has been found ba-sadeh, which the JPS Bible translates as “lying in the open.” No one knows the identity of the murderer, so the elders of the town and its magistrates measure the distance from the corpse to the nearest towns.

The elders of the town nearest the corpse take an eglah arufah, a heifer that has never known a yoke, and bring it to an overflowing wadi that is not tilled or sown. In the wadi, the elders break the heifer’s neck, at which point the priests, the kohanim, come forward to make a blessing. Then the elders of the town nearest the corpse wash their hands over the heifer and declare, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among your people Israel.”

In this way, the townspeople are absolved of the guilt for this unsolved murder. The Torah ends the incident saying, “Thus you will remove from your midst guilt for the blood of the innocent, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of the Lord” (21:9).

I remember learning the episode of the eglah arufah when I was in Jewish day schools, both elementary and high school. It was one of the stories that shaped my identity and made me proud to be a Jew, since it taught me how sensitively we Jews must treat everyone in the world. Here was a person, most likely a traveler, a total stranger unconnected to the nearby towns through which she was passing. And yet, we are guilty if anything happens to that stranger; his blood is on our hands if harm befalls him. Yes, I thought, this is the goal of religion: to call on its adherents to empathize so deeply with all humanity.

No doubt this is why Cohen’s explication of the eglah arufah ordeal speaks to me, deepening as it does my conviction that ours is a religion that asks us to go beyond the letter of the law in dealing with the Other, the Stranger. Cohen explains that in Mishnah Sotah 9:6, the rabbis are interested in the formula that the elders of the town recite as they exonerate themselves of the murder. The Mishnah translates the iteration literally, so it reads, “Our hands did not shed this blood, and our eyes did not see,” and then adds: “And did we believe that the elders of the court are spillers of blood? Rather [they say]: ‘For he did not come to us and we dismissed him. And we did not see him and let him be.’”

What didn’t the elders see? Cohen asserts that the ritual asks the town and its elders to interrogate themselves to make sure that they weren’t guilty of willful or negligent blindness to the needs of this anonymous person, who somehow ended up murdered, perhaps because those needs weren’t attended to.

Cohen then cites a baraita, a text outside the main mishnaic ones, which takes the mishnaic comments even further. The baraita says: “And did we believe that the court [is composed of] murderers? Rather [they say] “He did not come to us and we dismissed him with no food,” and “We did not see him and yet leave him with no escort” (qtd. in Cohen, 72). The baraita is explaining that perhaps the elders and town bear responsibility for this person’s death because they did not offer him food, and they let him leave town unattended. In other words, the townspeople did not act hospitably, leaving this stranger vulnerable to attack. (It’s interesting to note that while the biblical text does not specify that the murder victim is a stranger, most likely a wayfarer, at this point the Mishnah and baraita assume it is.)

The 11th-century commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, the famous Rashi, adds another layer to the narrative. He says that perhaps the townspeople dismissed the stranger without food, thereby forcing him to steal and opening him up to being killed for his theft. Wow. In pondering how this slain person came to be killed, Rashi blames even the traveler’s stealing on the negligence of the townspeople.

Cohen points out that the formulation of the disavowal, “Our hands did not shed, our eyes did not see,” cause us to think that in fact “our hands did shed, our eyes did see.” He cites philosopher Jacques Derrida, who calls this “writing under erasure,” that is, “introducing something into the conversation and then immediately negating it.” We can write Johnny is well, but when we write Johnny is not sick, we are planting an image of sickness in the reader’s mind. Was Johnny sick? Is Johnny really not sick now?

Continuing, Cohen writes, “It is not true, the elders protest, that we were blind to his plight. The growing facts of the disavowed narrative lead us to the conclusion that there is actual responsibility here. Somebody should have seen. What kind of place is this where a stranger can wander through in total anonymity and not be offered food and an escort?”

I want to examine the place in which the murdered corpse is found, ba-sadeh. The JPS, as I mentioned, translated the word as “lying in the open,” but it technically means “in the field,” and is the same place where, according to the Bible, the world’s first murder took place: the murder of Abel by Cain. Here is Genesis 4:8:

“Cain said to his brother Abel … and when they were in the field [ba-sadeh], Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.”

And of course we know how the story unfolds: God says to Cain, in perhaps one of the most famous rhetorical questions, “Where is your brother, Abel?” and Cain replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” At which point God issues His/Her rebuke: “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!”

The story of Cain and Abel is one of the stories of early humankind. Cain is a tiller of soil, Abel a shepherd. Post-Eden, we are told in the early chapters of Genesis, humankind is organizing into ever-increasing complex societies, with farmers and shepherds and other specialized jobs. And humankind has begun to practice religion: Cain and Abel bring sacrifices to God. If juxtaposition is anything to go by, it seems that sacrifice might be the cause of the Bible’s first fratricide. And it is tragic that one of the first recorded biblical acts between brothers is murder … in the field.

The same kind of field where someone was found slain.

The ritual of the eglah arufah involves the elders, magistrates, and priests. They are responsible not only for the law and order in a town, but for the town’s spiritual well-being — all of which are tied together in the God-fearing biblical community. The ritual asks us to take a heifer that hasn’t known a yoke and to conduct the ceremony near a river that isn’t tilled or sown. In other words, by using animals, plants, and water that are in their natural state, we are returned to a primordial, more innocent condition, a kind of prelapsarian Eden, where all is natural harmony. (Sacrifice may seem like an unnatural way to accomplish that, but it was common in the Biblical world to expiate human and societal guilt by transferring it onto another object or animal.) If the result of our progress — our march from an agricultural to an urban society, with all the accompanying technological and civic advancements — is still fratricide, then we have to re-examine ourselves and the kind of world we’re building.

What kind of place is this, where a stranger can wander through in total anonymity and not be offered food and an escort?

Cohen points out in his book that Abraham is the paradigm of kindness and a paradigm for what our behavior as Jews should look like. Why? Because his tent was open on all four sides, and wayfarers, strangers, could pass through and be treated to his and Sarah’s welcoming hospitality. By contrast, Sodom and Gomorrah are exemplars of corruption and wickedness; when strangers come, the townspeople want to rape them. The strangers — who ironically aren’t human, but angels — are dehumanized by the Sodomites, seen as objects to be had for their pleasure.

We are now in the three weeks between the Fast of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av, weeks when we remember that what destroyed our Temple is not so much the physical might of conquering nations, but our own hatred and mistreatment of each other. But I don’t mean to focus only on intra-fighting amongst Jews, bad as that is. In a world that is ever more interconnected and complex, hatred and mistreatment of the Other, the stranger, will only keep us farther from Eden, from Redemption.

Our brother’s blood calls out to us from the ground. Our hands do shed. Our eyes do see.

We are all each other’s keepers. We are all each other’s brothers and sisters.

About the Author
Tikvah Wiener is Head of School of The Idea School, a project-based learning Orthodox high school located at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, NJ. She lives in Teaneck, NJ, with her husband and children.