Yossi Feintuch

Judging another? Use his past, present, and future

This week’s Torah portion discusses the dietary prohibitions against eating various types of animals; when it comes to land (or four-legged) animals the Torah spells out the four ‘’borderline’’ animals whose flesh is banned for being ritually polluted. All four – the camel, the rock-badger, the hare, and the pig — were deemed potentially bamboozling since each one features one of the two signs that characterize pure animals permitted for (kosher) slaughtering.

Yet, the Torah – as is the case with the bulk of its religious demands (Mitzvoth) – provides no explanation for why both chewing the cud and fully parted hooves make an animal pure (kosher), whilst lacking even one of them renders it religiously defiled.

Dr. Rabbi Joshua Garroway writes this week in “By not providing a rationale, Jews of every generation are bound to understand such laws on their own terms, to determine what abstention from… [of eating meat of any one of these four animals that lack only one of the two signs for ritual purity] might mean to a particular Jew in a particular time and place. The results of such investigations might prove instructive and/or uplifting.”

Indeed, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter found the combined triple explanation about the signs of defilement in the camel, the rock-badger and the hare as pertinent to how to abstain from ‘’lashon ha-ra’’ or bad-mouthing another person – a verboten act of the Torah.  About the camel the Torah says: ‘’It does not split its hoof; [ergo] it is polluted for you.” The rock-badger says the Torah ‘’will not part its hoof; [ergo] it is polluted for you.” And when it comes to the hare what prevents it from being pure is that ‘’it did not split its hoof; [ergo] it is polluted for you.”

These three tenses – present for the camel, future for the rock-badger, and past for the hare are usually lost in translation, but this is how the Hebrew presents them (Lev. 11:4-6) and for an important reason – it is a guidance how not to commit a slanderous speech by rendering another person as impure or defiled. Before we make up our mind that such and such a person is ‘’un-kosher’’ or tainted – so we can warn others of his foul actions — we need to ascertain, the Salanter teaches – that we stand on solid ground, just like the Torah does before it declares any of those three animals as ‘’unclean’’.

Before we malign another person as ‘’contaminated’’ it is incumbent on us not to rely on one-time action that he might be presently committing, but to investigate whether his past shows up the same pattern of defilement. If the person’s past is clear then it would be improper to hastily badmouth such a person. Nonetheless, even if both past and present are fouled, we are to determine whether that is adequate for us to infer that said person will realistically continue and act impurely in the future; are we totally convinced that he will repeat his bad action?

ONLY after we have determined sincerely that both his past and present tainted behavior are a clear indication about the future as well, only then we may declare such a person to be impure and defiled – just as the Torah guides us to do by using its dietary laws to show us the way. Hence, the Talmudic Joshua ben Perahiah: ‘’… judge the whole person with the scale weighted in his favor”; whole being with all three tenses.

About the Author
Ordained a Rabbi by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1994; in 2019 this institution accorded me the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa. Following ordination I served congregations on the island of Curacao, in Columbia, MO. Currently serving a congregation in Bend, Or. I received academic degrees from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (B.A. in International Relations and History), New York University (M.A. in History), and Emory University (Ph.D. in U.S. History). I am the author of U.S. Policy on Jerusalem (Greenwood Press), and numerous articles on biblical themes in various print and digital publications. I have taught in several academic institutions, including Ben-Gurion University (Beersheba, Israel), and the University of Missouri (Columbia, MO). A native of Afula, Israel. A veteran of the IDF.