Let’s discuss values

In my last blog I wrote about the problems of kosher milk in Israel. The blog received more comments than usual, mainly from Orthodox readers correcting my understanding of Halacha. Some were personal, including one that claimed I “want to live in a state where the overiding [sic] ideals are the same as those in New Jersey.”

Let’s talk about ideals. Or better yet, values – ideals are by definition perfect and difficult to attain, while values are the underlying beliefs of what is right or wrong that guide our behavior. Values must not be confused with hair-splitting legal definitions. For example, the sanctity of human life is a value, which led to the broad law “thou shalt not kill.” This law led to interpretations – you may kill to save another life, for example. Many of these interpretations changed over time – the definition of “humanity” broadened from males of the ruling tribe/race/religion to include women, slaves, children, minorities. Hair-splitting legal decisions enter into courtrooms, and are very important in deciding a particular case. But the underlying value of human life is the core.

In Judaism, most of the underlying values are expressed in the Ten Commandments, with more detailed laws continuing throughout the Torah. The Halacha is the body of hair-splitting legal interpretations. Leaving one day of the week for rest is a value. The list of actions you may or may not do on that day is a body of rules, and the discussion of when you may break these rules is legal debate. Sometimes the legal debate adds new values, or makes important distinctions between their relative importance: the principle of “pikuach nefesh,” by which one may violate Shabbat (or kashrut or other laws) in order to save a life shows us that the value of preserving human life is higher than the value of resting one day a week.

Unfortunately, in recent years we have forgotten the difference between our underlying values and the interpretation of individual laws. We have sanctified very specific individual actions over upholding broad principles. People who use a timer on Shabbat are “observing the Shabbat,” while those who travel to spend the day relaxing with their family are “breaking the Shabbat.”  And we non-Haredis are guilty of this as well. As soon as we are confronted with a Halachic argument, either we back down, assuming that we don’t understand these matters, or we try to argue with our own hair-splitting legal interpretations (my mistake in my blog on kosher milk). But Halacha is not in and of itself a value.

Throughout Jewish history we have argued about the interpretation of the law – there has never been just one answer. From the beginning of modern history until the establishment of the State, we lived under the laws of the country in which we lived and the self-imposed laws of Halacha. A Jew who did not want to live according to a particular interpretation of Halacha could move to a different community or simply stop observing, facing social sanctions but no other punishment. Today we are living in a state in which a Jewish majority decides the laws, which will be enforced not only by public opinion but by police and courts with the ability to fine and incarcerate people and take away business licenses.

In the argument over enlisting the ultra-Orthodox we give a particular interpretation of laws regarding the relationship between men and women the status of a supreme value, while the basic value of equality of all citizens is pushed to the side. My 11th grade son has dreamed of being a pilot since age 3; instead of an imaginary friend, he had an imaginary fighter plane that only bombed “sand and rocks and old things that people don’t need any more.” He will enlist – that is not a question in our family. He will serve where the army tells him to. And we have begun discussing with him the implications of his desire to be a pilot, fighting against real human beings and not just sand and rocks: he has an  obligation to refuse immoral commands, even if that means sitting in jail. But since we do not follow a particular interpretation of Halacha, nobody in the army will make special compensation for his values.

I invite a real discussion of values. What is our responsibility as a majority to the minorities within our state? What is our responsibility to the majority? How do we treat the “stranger in our gates” — these days, the mainly Sudanese and Erithrean asylum seekers whom we decided to expel in the days leading up to Passover? Instead of arguing over the definition of kosher milk, let’s discuss the underlying values behind kashrut: our relationship to food, to animals, to health. Can we have freedom of and from religion even if we have chosen to live in a Jewish state? Leviticus 19:18 states “Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Let’s discuss whether “neighbor” includes non-Jews.

Are different values mutually exclusive? What is the importance of free will in a democracy? How do people with different values live side by side? When do we decide to agree to disagree on a point, allowing our different values to coexist in a diverse community (is diversity  in itself a value we uphold, or an unfortunate reality preventing a pure monocultural society?) and when do we legislate laws that uphold one value at the cost of the other?

I love a good legal argument as much as the next person. I respect people who have decided to live according to a particular interpretation of Jewish law. But I want to reframe the argument about the place of Jewish Law in Israel to a discussion of values.

About the Author
A member of Kibbutz Samar, Marjorie has lived in the Arava since 1987, working as a dairy farmer, treasurer, grant writer, and chief cat-herd. She currently directs the Southern Arava Agricultural Research and Development Center. Marjorie is married, with three children aged 12-22. She grew up in NJ and holds a BA from Cornell University and an MSc in agricultural economics from Hebrew University.
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