Who Made Me Do It?

When caught by my Israeli or American religious colleagues, students, or friends supporting a liberal position, I often defuse the tension by weakly smiling, “The Devil made me do it.” I usually get a pass along with words of rebuke. If you live a life in classic Talmud study you create cognitive dissonance by being both a believer and a social and political progressive. Actually, this is true for me as well; I reject the Left’s rejectionism of religious values and Israeli secular popular culture leaves me, with all its crassness, with an ache in my ear, belly, and heart – this is not to say that the religious right is not severely aesthetically challenged.

But if you are a full-time believer in Rabbinic Judaism (I am) then the real response should be: “God made me do it.”

God has a plan and a set of orders that leaves no room for refusal; even if we wish to take the easy way out we are not allowed. The first example is that He told us of a promised land that should not be one “that consumes its inhabitants” (Num. 13:32), but rather be “exuding honey and milk” (Num. 13:27). If we choose the first verse as the predictable outcome of our policies then we violate His will. The cohabitants of this land are covenanted children of Noah, monotheistic and moral people. I am not allowed to succumb to hateful anger (an emotion that evidences idolatry, for its boundless nihilism), but I am compelled by the Law to make our difficult situation, balancing defense and searching for peace, work out in the end. For many of my friends, saying this makes me a Leftist. For them, this is not a compliment.

Yes, Torah makes life uncomfortable. As a man I benefit from the power status that protects men from sexual accusations. Nonetheless, the Torah and the Rabbis teach us to fully believe the rape claims of a woman found in the field, for she has no access for help – “She had no rescuer” (Deut. 22:27). This is certainly the position that most women face today in the wasteland of educational institutions, or employment situations where their powerlessness allows for abuse. I am compelled to listen and, yes, to believe them, and find means of rescue, and leave my despicable man’s comfort zone. And I am compelled by Rabbinic teachings to be aware that even a “minor” abuse, the “dust” of a major crime, that echoes its foulness and creates the environment for much worse abuse, is strictly forbidden. Therefore sexist behaviors, joking, and put-downs, are real crimes. The Torah thus enunciates a “Progressive” policy.

Another instance: because of the value that Jewish law gives to modesty (tzniut), how is it that male courts publicly judge, shame, and refuse women access to abortion? Do they know what lies in the heart of an indigent pregnant teenager? The fundamental decency of halakha forces me to find either an honorable way for her to live, keeping her baby, or to provide a safe abortion and then rebuild her life.

The demands of God hit us in our pocketbook. Tax monies for poverty programs are being seriously curtailed. In economies such as the U.S. and Israel where employment is fully available, “Get a job” is proclaimed by many as a “moral” Jewish position. But increasingly jobs are only borderline wages with no meaningful benefits. The best way out of poverty is education, as Maimonides mandated in his Mishneh Torah – the greatest tzedakah is to teach a person an occupation (Gifts for the Poor, 10:7). The notion of universal, truly free university education is derided by those on the right as expensive and fanciful. Maimonides cites as an absolute Torah commandment (Lev. 25:35) to “Strengthen [the poor],” which includes “The stranger residing in your midst.” As Maimonides explains, our goal must be “strengthen him to the point that he [citizen or alien] won’t fall into dependency.” To accomplish all this is complicated, expensive, and outrageously inclusive. But that is what Jewish law mandates.

What is truly outrageous is that the Halakhically observant have allowed the movement to return migrant children to their parents to become only a progressive agenda that they effectively have no part of. It is impossible to consider a higher value than the bond between parent and child. Indeed the most significant description of our relation to God is that of Child to Parent. The barbaric act of separating children from their parents might serve as warning to illegal immigrants, but the price is a repudiation of the most basic relation we possess. If only the progressives are taking on this challenge, as a religious Jew, I am forced to place myself in the progressive camp.

Clever coreligionists have answered me that “Yes, you are right in theory, but you are totally impractical,” or, “you neglect legal principles that take a counter direction.” Maybe, but nonetheless one is obligated to consider the “Yes” – the major principles that they are ready to overrule and ignore. They trample the meta-principles of the human created in God’s Image, Love Your Fellow as Yourself, and the Ways of Peace.

Halakhah speaks progressively with “lower” principles than those three meta-concepts. The U.N. has just delivered a report that states that without dramatic changes in our relation to the environment we face disaster by 2040. The Right is in denial, but we have principles in Halakha that relate to this. The first is the prohibition of wanton destruction (Deut 20:19-20) based on the restriction against destroying fruit trees in a siege. This extends as far as not unnecessarily tearing a garment, even for a mourner. World End should fit this category of wanton destruction. The second is the verse “And truly guard your body” (Deut. 4:15), which includes being on a bad diet. Environmental preservation is a mitzvah. It would be of little use to have another thousand dunams on the West Bank if it is rendered uninhabitable. The last principle are the words I learned from my revered teacher of Halakha Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik: “You are forbidden to be stupid.” I am often infuriated with the progressive cause and its atheistic associations, but in the end, their policies often reflect Torah values, which are smart and may keep us alive. Thinking this, I suppose that God may share the Devil’s sense of humor.

As I completed this article on Saturday night in Israel, we just heard of the continuing bloodshed in Pittsburgh. This and the attempted murders of notable public figures show the moral bankruptcy of the right. Conspiracy theories, not so hidden calls for violence, and general racist dog whistles have resulted in the Jewish community not being exempt from terrible violence. The Jewish moral positions of integrity (yashrut), tolerance, and courage fly in the face of the repugnant actions of the highest elected official of the United States of America.

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Landes teaches Talmud and theology from Jerusalem. He was recently named one of the 2016 Forward 50 leaders.
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