The Last of Deuteronomy
These are the terms of the covenant which the Lord commanded Moses to conclude with the Israelites in the land of Moab, in addition to the covenant which he made with them at Horeb. Deuteronomy 28:69
I recently finished one of my marathon encounters with customer service at a credit card company. We got the card because it was recommended as having the best point reward program. (Our other three cards have frequent zero-point interest, no credit limit and/or a Chicago Cubs logo on the front.) These cards are mostly for security purposes (and the points) because we pay off our bills in full every month.
Of course, in order to use the cards and access the points, we had to agree to Terms and Conditions. Usually, the most important details are highlighted – interest rates, minimum payments, penalty fees, arbitration requirements. But there are pages of densely packed tiny print written, I am sure, by highly trained attorneys that set all kinds of terms and all sorts of conditions that are required by regulation and developed by the company. I never read them.
Those kind of terms and conditions also apply to health insurance, mortgages, auto loans, home improvements, computer apps, internet and data service, appliance warranties, and small electronics. I never read them.
Once, after a regularly scheduled out-patient medical procedure, the condition of my discharge required me to sign a release that, I was told, included an agreement not to sign any legal documents for twenty-four hours because of the lingering effects of anesthesia. I stared in incredulity at the nurse who presented me with the clipboard and pen who said, “I know. You are not the first one to question this. You are not even the first one today.” I signed. I never read the terms and conditions.
My four-and-a-half-hour session with four customer service reps over two days was about rebooking a flight that was canceled by COVID-19 restrictions last year. I called with new dates for the rescheduled vacation, including flight numbers and the information the company had provided on how to rebook the flights using my returned points. So why did it take so long? Terms and conditions. The very specific circumstances of rebooking were in black and white, seemingly to prevent me from ever using the credit at any convenience to myself. I never read them.
This problem is not new; it is not an invention of modern commerce and litigation. A classic legend from almost two thousand years ago imagines a confrontation between Moses and the rebel leader Korach from almost fifteen hundred years before that. Korach asks if a garment made completely of blue thread fulfilled the requirement of a blue thread in the tassels, as included in the terms of the covenant. Moses says no. He asks if a houseful of sacred books of Scripture would exempt the resident from posting a few verses of the Bible on his doorpost, as required in the terms of the covenant. Moses says no. Korach scoffs at the entire endeavor.
Mind you, this legend is told by the rabbis who held Scripture so sacred that they studied its every jot and tittle as holding some divine revelation. There were, however, things they even they found inscrutable. They chalked them up to categories they called “statutes,” divine commandments that did not have apparent logically derived rationales.
The fact that an individual may not be able to explain why the tassels must have a blue thread or the doorpost of a library must have the same verses as a bedroom without a single book did not change the terms and conditions. Neither did the excuse “I never read them.”
In a society based on personal autonomy like the United States, every set of terms and conditions must be restated for the individual and agreed to by that person. There are, of course, some exceptions. Those collective terms and conditions that were accepted by representatives of an entire generation on behalf of all subsequent generations are still in force. “We the People of the United States” for all sorts of reasons broadly stated, did “ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
In a system based on collective responsibility like many faiths, but certainly like Judaism, the terms and conditions apply without personal affirmation. Maybe that’s why there is such a preoccupation with learning (and by “learning” I mean sacred studies, not merely how to write the legal documents that I never read) in Jewish culture. The terms of the covenant made at Horeb – that is, Mt. Sinai – and Moab – that is, Moses’ instructions in Deuteronomy – are incumbent on every consumer, not just the Levitical customer service reps.
That’s why I always read them.
The Last of Deuteronomy
Cursed be he who will not uphold the terms of this teaching and observe them – and all the people shall say, “amen.” Deuteronomy 27:26
Ah, the power of the crowd. If you have ever been a part of one, you know what I mean. You go to a home-town game of your favorite sports team and the energy of thousands of fans, cheering and booing, adds to the experience. Seeing a comedy in a crowded theater (remember that?) makes the laughter more contagious (and the ill-timed silences more profound). And when the familiar opening riff of a rock-and-roll classic blasts from the stage, you, along with everyone around you, are born to run.
I leave it to scientists to explain the physical reactions that are generated by being a part of such a collective experience. I myself can report both as participant and as observer that there is an undeniable energy that emanates from an inspired crowd. The question is, what inspires them?
Back when I was a congregational rabbi, I was glad to exploit this group mentality. When I was skilled and fortunate enough to compose a lesson that engaged people, I could feel the intensity and perceive, when I brought a teaching or a sermon to conclusion, what my wife called a “quality of silence” that vibrated through the sanctuary. I had the privilege to work with a cantor whose voice had the same effect on worshipers. And on those occasions when we integrated our presentations – for example, one memorable time that I discussed and she sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” – the effect was so electric it likely violated the prohibitions of labor on sacred Jewish holidays.
But I have seen that collective energy used for less holy purposes. A couple of summers back, when we were not prisoners of a virus, I stood on the desolate parade ground on the outskirts of Nuremberg looking up at the concrete platform that hosted evil incarnate before I was born. The quality of silence in that place was of a distinctly different nature, still whispering the deafening shouts of (mostly) young (mostly) men in adulation of someone asking them to do what, in private reflection, they would most certainly know was wrong.
Somewhere between these two extremes are political rallies in this our democracy.
My college roommate, still my best friend, refuses to participate in the chanting that is so often a part of rallies. He can’t stand the exercise. While people around us were being led in “Hey hey, ho ho, [political figure] has got to go” he would just be shaking his head. I think of him whenever, in my capacity as the leader of an advocacy group, I attend a demonstration and get handed a printed list of chants to lead when I conclude whatever brief remarks I am asked to give. Rather than choosing to channel Country Joe McDonald (“gimme an F…”), I mostly decline, using my age as an excuse.
Plus, I have begun to see how dangerous this chanting business can be when the crowd is encouraged by a manipulative speaker. I guess “four more years” is innocuous enough, but “lock her up” or “stop the steal” encourages and justifies the diminishment of the social order and the humanity of those who disagree.
Reading a bill of particulars and asking people to shout a verdict is mob rule. It may be as old as the Bible, but it has a decidedly unholy purpose. It is one step away from the townspeople grabbing torches and marching on Baron von Frankenstein’s mansion, which makes for great entertainment but very bad – and very illegal – public behavior.
There is one thing that commends riling up a crowd and it is this: the Riler-in-Chief of the moment is face to face with the Rilees. The speaker must take responsibility for what comes out of their mouth, and there is collective witness (and most often a record) of what they said. Those who succumb to herd impunity cannot deny its origins. The amen-activity is attached by a string that is fixed at one end to the speaker and the other end to the actor.
It is different than the anonymous (or, at least, mitigated) rabble rousing of social media, where Q can dodge the onus by remaining Anon.
And it is because of this last technological innovation that I understand Moses reciting the imprecations and demanding the affirming chant at the end. The feedback is immediate, the effect is electrifying and the message – in this case – is essentially moral. Yet I cannot help but think that if Moses had thought it through, he would have rallied the crowd around blessings.
The Last of Deuteronomy
And that He will set you, in fame and renown and glory, high above all the nations that He has made; and that you shall be, as He promised, a holy people to the Lord your God. Deuteronomy 26:19
Early in his presidency, Barack Obama was asked by a British reporter if he believed in American exceptionalism. He responded, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” His political opponents, always on the lookout for a fault, found it in this remark. In fact, six years later, the quotation found its way into the campaign of one of the many Republicans hoping to succeed him in office.
How could an American president not believe unequivocally in the uniqueness of our national endeavor, the candidate wanted to know. A relativistic approach to this foundational value of how we see ourselves was the source of (what the candidate identified as) the decline in respect for the United States.
I sort of sit on the sidelines of this issue because a lot of the same folks who endorse the notion of American exceptionalism find the idea of Jewish chosenness to be offensive. I admit to wobbling back and forth on the question of whether I believe in it. On the one hand, it’s in the Bible, from beginning to end, starting with Genesis where Abram is told to be a blessing and that “those who bless you I will bless and those who curse you I will curse,” and ending here in an unequivocal statement. On the other hand, the equality of all people, which is clear even earlier in Genesis, has led every generation of Jewish scholars to affirm that Jews are chosen for service, not for privilege.
And certainly, every faith that has begun since Judaism has insisted that its teachings (and the adherents that follow them) have superseded the Jewish people and their Bible as God’s most recent chosen. The bickering over this title of “chosen” is like Tom and Dick Smothers squabbling over the claim “Mom always liked you best.”
So I suspect that the Christians believe in Christian chosenness and the Muslims believe in Muslim chosenness and the Baha’is believe in Baha’I chosenness, not so much as favored by God for their inherent worth, rather designated as the repository of God’s most authoritative revelation and instruction. And I equally suspect that we all harbor deep if sometimes unspoken doubts about the claims of communities that are not us.
Most recently, I have been more concerned with a different question than whether America is exceptional or Jews are chosen. The question is this: what difference does it make? Were I to discover that Luxembourg or Lesotho was exceptional, either more so or in a different way, would I change my allegiance? And though I have found much to admire and even embrace about other faith traditions, in what competition does it matter who wins the gold medal, who wins the bronze and who was eliminated in the first heat? I play for the team to which I belong, appreciating the efforts around me.
Woven throughout the Bible, and woven throughout the stories our societies tell us, are representations I believe are meant to motivate right and good behavior – and even right and good belief. This claim of chosenness stands alongside the extended sections of threats. If you break the law, the courts will punish you. If you break the covenant, God will punish you. And if you turn away from fidelity to the mission of your people, calamity will befall you.
Is it integrated into our psyches that goodness and righteousness occur only to please those with authority over us, or to avoid punishment by those with power? Must we believe ourselves to be better than others before we will be good for the sake of goodness so as not to cause doubt about our claim?
And maybe more important, does the claim to elevated status actually exempt us from meeting the standards we commend to others?
We are at the end of four years of painful reckoning of what some people consider America’s former greatness and others consider its continuing shame. The debate will not be settled soon or, perhaps, ever. But how we each confront the notion that something other than our own conduct determines the content of our character can make the arguments moot.
Some ideas, accurate or not, deserve to atrophy – preserved as history, but not as legacy.
The Last of Deuteronomy
Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary possession, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven. Do not forget. Deuteronomy 25:19
Deprived of movie theaters and live venues during this pandemic, we spend a lot of time watching movies and streaming series on television. There is a limited universe of actors, and inevitably we will recognize someone from something else we have watched. Olivia Coleman, for example, seems to be in every British production of the last ten years.
Binge-watching may be an unusual way to learn an existential lesson, but I have come to a better understanding of the difference between remembering and not forgetting (likewise, forgetting and not remembering) in the two most frequent questions my wife and I ask each other in front of the TV. The first is “did we see that already?” The second is “what was she in?”
The first question is about forgetting. If a movie or show has made a lasting impression on us, it will come to mind when we see the title or, often, any snippet from it. I can rattle off dozens of my most unforgettable movies, including “Casablanca,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Animal House” and, believe it or not, “Phantasm.” (I was so scared after a late-night showing of that movie that I drove straight home, not bothering with streets.) There is no effort in recalling what I haven’t forgotten. The pleasure or, God forbid, trauma has taken up residence in an accessible place in memory. The tragedy of memory loss includes the deterioration of that automatic response.
The second question is about remembering. With or without a hint of recognition, remembering is an active process of retrieval. Where did I see that baby-faced actor who played Benny in “The Queen’s Gambit?” There is an almost physical effort involved as I mentally scan the scenes in which his image flickers until I figure it out. (Oh, yeah. Thomas Brodie-Sangster, the kid in “Love Actually,” minus the ‘stache.) Re-member-ing literally involves putting pieces back together, some of which are more accessible and some much less.
What does it take for an experience to be unforgettable, to live close enough to the surface that it is with us constantly? There is a better chance of it when strong emotion is attached or, similarly, a profound sensory encounter.
Witnessing the desert awaken to the morning sun, the passionate telling by a friend of his conversion, the sound of laughter after reciting an original joke, the electric anticipation when my courage overcame my insecurity as I leaned into my first kiss – these are unforgettable experiences. I do not have to be instructed “do not forget.” They are resident and accessible.
So, too, are traumas, both physical and emotional. Like the hammer that misses a nail and leaves an impression on the wood, a blow to the heart or to the body makes for a visceral memory that is right at the surface. Light will reflect, liquid will pool, dust will collect differently, with or without intention.
It is logical, even sensible, to encourage someone whose memories are painful to try to forget. After all, the constancy of that unforgettable memory can take over an entire life and even lead people to repeat the familiar but undesirable behavior. An entire discipline of medicine is devoted to relieving rather than reliving.
Amalek, mentioned in the verse, was the hammer that purposely missed the nail. The trauma of gratuitous violence against the small and lesser-abled – Amalek’s crime – left its indelible mark on the generation that fled from oppression. To be sure, they would never forget. But the atrocities were visited only on that generation, and so to prevent them from being committed by some other Amalek, they had to be remembered. The story had to be told because the pain would eventually be forgotten.
It seems to be a paradox – remember so as not to forget.
The pain of our recent sufferings will not be forgotten. But if we are to prevent them from being repeated in the future, then it is important that we don’t forget to remember.
The Last of Deuteronomy
When you enter another man’s field of standing grain, you may pluck ears with your hand, but you must not put a sickle to your neighbor’s grain. Deuteronomy 23:26
When I was eight years old, my family moved from the city environs of Chicago to the village of Wilmette. Today, it’s pretty clear that Wilmette is a close-in suburb of a metro area that extends almost to Wisconsin, but in 1960 housing developments were popping up on land that had been mostly farms. The eastern section of the village had been well-populated for a long time, but we moved to a house at the dead end of a brand new street, and beyond that dead end were the remnants of a chicken coop and then a small working farm.
Even as our neighborhood expanded, the family farm remained active. Two aging sisters planted modest crops and flowers and sold them (and pullet eggs) from a roadside stand. There was no fence around the farm and only a dirt driveway onto the property.
I remember the summer day I found out that a couple of brothers from the neighborhood on the other side of the farm discovered the crops. For them, refugees from the concrete, it was miraculous that there was food growing from the ground virtually in their backyard. They proudly brought home an armload of eggplants to their mother. She was, of course, mortified and took the boys to the farm to apologize and offer to pay for the purloined vegetables. The sisters were very gracious. They all lived happily ever after.
We hear a lot of noise these days about the abandonment of Biblical values. In the very complicated discussions about the differences that technology and medical science have made in our lives, there are people with various perspectives who claim to know what Moses anticipated about transfusions, abortions, electricity and even Twitter. We don’t much hear about the abandonment of concern for one another that the Bible makes very clear.
A friend of mine, who also happened to grow up in Wilmette as a Chicago transplant, worked in Washington on federal policies involving the poor. I found his approach to be lacking a certain compassion (I say euphemistically) and told him so. He wasn’t having any of it. Rather, he claimed, the ideas he advanced were about dignity. Certainly, the unemployable needed to be sustained, but those capable of providing for themselves should have the opportunity to do so, not the excuse to have their productivity devalued. Our society values work, he said, and at least as important as income was a sense of worth.
In these two very different anecdotes there is a quiet countercultural idea. The sisters, perhaps inspired by the Biblical mandate, placed hospitality over cost. The policymaker understood financial support to be a byproduct of personal dignity rather than a substitute for it. In other words, even in this capitalist society, worth and value are not the same thing. The social contract that rightly should be presumed puts people ahead of money.
That probably borders on heretical in a free-market economy, but the Bible does not commend or condemn the various economic systems in which it has been read and studied. It originated in a time when, if you were hungry – not even starving, just hungry – it could be presumed that your neighbor or even the farmer along the road you were traveling would let you grab a pomegranate or a handful of figs or a fistful of wheat stalks and feed yourself. The caution not to abuse the privilege by harvesting what you did not plant and tend is a recognition that people have rightful claim on and pride in the fruits of their own labors.
In our country, helping yourself to an apple from a stranger’s orchard can get you arrested. Taking a bedraggled passerby into your home is considered reckless and foolhardy. Handing a stranger a dollar bill is cause for mockery.
The times we live in are certainly different than Biblical times and even those days of my childhood. There are no more neighborhood farms in Wilmette. The social safety net for the poor has been reimagined many times. Now, unfortunately, it is all about the Benjamins. We measure success by wealth and celebrate our values by charitable donations (and, often, the tax advantages they bring).
From both the grassroots and the ruling elite, only a return to hospitality toward others and a concern for their dignity will we find a more authentic religious standard for a just society.
(please note -- this week's column is posted out of order. Sorry!)
The Last of Deuteronomy
Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment. Deuteronomy 24:22
There are at least two schools of thought about Holocaust education. One seeks to honor the memory of those who perished at the hands of the Nazis. The other seeks to honor the memory of those who lived before the Nazis. I hope it is obvious that I am describing the same group of people.
The Jewish population of pre-World War II Europe was a flourishing and diverse world. More than just small towns that inspired “Fiddler on the Roof,” more than just Freud and Herzl and Karl Marx, more than manufacturing entrepreneurs and professional scholars, the world of Jews from Ukraine to Greece was as variegated as that of Europe as a whole. When we think about what we lost, we must think of all the things we were.
The Jewish population of the concentration camps was stripped of its diversity to be dressed in striped uniforms and shaved heads. If you have watched films or seen still photographs of the enslaved laborers and those lined up for extermination, it is nearly impossible to distinguish between the sophisticated and acculturated secular Jew of Budapest and the poor and pious Jew of Horochov. Each victim stands for all the victims; all the victims are every victim.
The experience of slavery in Egypt was defining for the generation of the Exodus. The life of servitude constituted the conversation between the liberated Israelites and their children who were born to a free if nomadic life. What do you think was the nature of Exodus education?
This question is not about only the traumas visited on Jews at either end of 3000 years of history (and in between, and since). Every oppressed people has a choice to make about memory; every traumatized person has a choice to make about memory. What should be preserved in memory and what should be allowed to fade?
The sprawling historical mini-series trend on television in the 1970s explored this question in dramatic (and sometimes very commercial) fashion. Perhaps no example is more pronounced than “Roots,” the broadcast version of Alex Haley’s telling of his family history beginning with a Gambian man, Kunta Kinte, kidnapped and sold to slavers at about the same time as the United States was born. Haley’s book was remarkable, but the visual expression of the very last episode lifted the question at hand to an unforgettable moment. Completing a visit to Gambia, Haley (played by James Earl Jones) is startled by a local (played by Levar Burton) who comes running up yelling “Mr. Kinte! Mr. Kinte!” Burton played Kunta as a young man, and now appeared before his very distant cousin as the embodiment of all that was maintained and all that was lost.
Remembering is an intentional act. (I will have more to say about it soon.) It involves choices about what to include in the present-day consciousness and how to frame past experience – personal or collective – in calling it to mind. It is, of course, impossible to recall everything; our brains don’t have room and our lives don’t have time. So our choices carry with them decisions about relative importance and the values they represent. Those choices have consequences not merely about the past. They also have impact on the future.
I grew up remembering the destruction of six million victims of murder. Black and white photos of frightened and emaciated men, women, and children. Piles of corpses next to smiling Nazis. 93 innocent girls choosing suicide over sexual abuse (a suspect story, by the way). As an adult, I visited Poland’s camps – Majdanek, Treblinka and, of course, Auschwitz – and the grim detritus of the Warsaw ghetto, with the small monument at Mila 18. My remembering was not a personal choice as much as a collective one. I grew into a Jewish community insistent on its sense of anger and offense. Famously, the late historian Emil Fackenheim added a 614th commandment to the traditional roster: do not give Hitler a posthumous victory.
Less emphasized (though not ignored) was the bounty of that Eastern European Jewish tradition. Its scholarship, music, art and literature continued the rich legacies of the previous centuries. The Yiddish language, bountiful in its expressiveness and sensibilities, dwindled in my generation as a secret language among parents and grandparents, but persisted like the mint that grew perennially in our garden of annuals. As a kid, and even to large extent as a student, this culture was unconnected to the losses of the Holocaust, but no less resident in my Jewish sensibilities.
“Remember,” commands the verse from Deuteronomy, connecting memory to enslavement. Reminded to remember, we cannot help but think through that mandate. But beyond the choice to remember is the equally important choice of what to remember.
The Last of Deuteronomy
The man who lay with her shall pay the girl’s father fifty [shekels of] silver, and she shall be his wife. Because he has violated her, he can never have the right to divorce her. Deuteronomy 22:29
Looking back, I can tell you the minute I stopped believing the Bible literally. It’s not that I was so faithful to the text before that, but if you had asked me if I believed in the inviolability of the text, I would have attributed any doubts in my mind about it to personal shortcomings. And it is not that I did not take personal exception to the standards of practice that had evolved from Biblical principle to traditional Jewish observance. I was (and remain) a team player – if those were the rules, I would stick with them.
But on a summer morning shortly after I was ordained a rabbi, I became father to a baby girl. To be precise, it was 9:31 a.m. All sorts of emotions washed over me. For example, I had an overwhelming urge to call my parents and apologize for my entire childhood. More to the point, if I had to decide at that moment to affirm my daughter’s basic human rights or to affirm the authority of a rapist to control her life in perpetuity, I would have chosen the newborn over the old-time religion faster than you could say “Apgar.”
I had just been ordained, so this theological earthquake could have been an existential crisis. And I don’t want you to think that during labor and delivery I was busy pondering the instruction on sexual misconduct in the Book of Deuteronomy. On the contrary, I was completely in awe of my wife, the medical team and, fortunately for my chosen profession, God, while the baby was being born. However, from this distant point in my adult life, I now know there was a shift in what I believed at that moment.
Belief is not an all-or-nothing proposition. My friend Rabbi Lawrence Troster, too soon of blessed memory, wrote profoundly of the centrality of what he called “perfect doubt.” He meant it as a counterbalance to the medieval philosopher and super-Jew Moses Maimonides whose thirteen claims to “belief with perfect faith” about the nature of God have been the gold standard for a thousand years. A version of Maimonides’s declaration serves as the concluding hymn in many synagogues every Friday night (and other times) when a catchy melody and desire to get to the waiting cookies prevents a conversation about whether any of us indeed aspire to that level of certainty, including the inerrancy of the Bible delivered verbatim to Moses. Rabbi Troster insisted (around the same time he became the father of twin daughters) that such claims of perfect belief were dangerous, and that only principled skepticism could lift faith above ignorance. He was right.
In my sojourns through the minefields of interfaith conversation, I struggle hard with my partners who affirm a certainty about God’s literal instructions. I suppose I have a desire to channel President Josiah Bartlett, publicly humiliating sanctimonious fundamentalists by selecting instructions like the one above and asking about implementing them. I don’t have a Troster-like sophistication to make the philosophical case; I just know that I, her father, and she, my daughter, should be unwilling to surrender her dignity if, God forbid, she were violently abused. I knew it intellectually as a young man. I knew it with a perfect faith as a new dad. So, there is a profound incredulity that I feel when I encounter kind and spiritual people who harbor such distrust in their own (God-given) skepticism. That it seems too often selective doesn’t help. But even those literalists who are willing to explain away difficult texts – like this one – insist that the internal logic of scripture resolves its own problems. They believe that human beings are here to obey the rules, not make them.
Ask me what I think of the Bible these days and I am likely to answer that I believe it is always true, but not always accurate. That is to say, this sacred document (or, perhaps more accurately, this collection of sacred documents) originates in a well-spring of truth that is transmitted by people somewhat desperate to believe they got it right.
And in my encounters with people of other traditions, I have learned the obvious truth that it is not just Bible-believers who make that mistake. Name your holy scripture and there will be believers who consider it literal and exclusive.
That belief in literalness is a choice. What an irony it is that believers who proselytize others to choose to share their belief close the door to any other choice regarding that belief. Yet, every story of origins begins with a person making a choice, and from that choice flow other choices we make, every one of us every day.
My baby girl exercised her right to choose the person she wished to marry. There was no coercion on anyone’s part, and I will not be receiving fifty silver shekels, now or ever. Like my love for the Bible, my love for her and my other kids has become more nuanced. It is a choice I make.
The Last of Deuteronomy
You must not let his corpse remain on the stake overnight, but must bury him the same day. For an impaled body is an affront to God; you shall not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess. Deuteronomy 21:23
I have written before about my belief that the negative commandments in the Bible (and even elsewhere) are reactive rather than proactive. That is to say, God did not invent stealing just to prohibit it. Adultery is not a divine suggestion that is then immediately disallowed. Lying in court is not considered one of many options when you testify.
We human beings are the innovators of bad behavior. Whether you attribute disapproval to God (as the Bible does) or to the collective wisdom of society, laws are designed to rein in proclivities that are native to the boundary-pushing personalities of human beings. There are no Ten Commandments for polar bears.
I offer as evidence the crime of murder. There is probably no more basic standard of morality than outlawing the willful taking of human life. Yet, until Cain slays his brother Abel, there is no law against it. If the power of Cain’s (bad) example were strong enough, there would be no need for legislation. And yet, there it is, smack in the middle of the Ten Commandments, hundreds of Biblical years after the fratricide.
The horror of any or all murders is not a deterrent to subsequent murderers. Whether premeditated or in the midst of passion, the person who purposely takes another person’s life is not concerned with the legality of the act. And so, for understandable reasons, this crime (and any number of other society-disrupting sins) are considered capital transgressions. The perpetrator forfeits their own privilege of living if found guilty of eliminating the sanctity of another life.
I get it. When I think of what I would want if, God forbid, I lost a beloved family member or friend to the violence of an antagonist, I understand the blood lust lurking beneath my cultured and sophisticated surface. Hey, I might even be willing to exact the price myself. Maybe the law is designed to keep me from doing just that. (Though it is worth noting that a different section of the Bible allows for revenge killing in the case of manslaughter.)
The law steps in for the lust. If the proper proof is brought, the established procedures followed, the verdict incontrovertible, then and only then is the perpetrator treated to extreme sanction. And, unlike constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment, even in capital cases, there is a smorgasbord of methodologies in the Bible – stoning, burning, beheading, and hanging. Yikes!
And yet. It is very clear from the verse at the top of this column that even the capital penalty in its implementation is not considered a deterrent to the crime. Before the sun goes down, the body of the criminal must be removed from public display and properly buried. Anything less is an affront to God and, by extension, to those who seek to honor God. Even the legally justified willful taking of human life is repulsive. Those who seek to instill righteousness in a community understand that it is not accomplished by unrighteous behavior.
Capital punishment is no more a deterrent than Cain’s murder of Abel. If it were, the public display of an impaled body would have been called a warning, not an affront. It would have been called a preventative, not a defilement. It would have been framed as God’s will, not God’s embarrassment.
This past year, the federal government has returned to the practice of putting those convicted of certain crimes to death. It is different than convicting people of capital crimes. The point is made by the verdict. The practice is not without consequence, however.
Recently, one of the more noxious characters in public life (formerly part of the aforementioned federal government) spoke on a right-wing talk radio show and called for a scientist’s head to be displayed on a pike in front of the White House. The “crime” was advocating for measures to contain the pandemic afflicting the country and the world. Lots of (mostly uninformed) people have objected to masks and quarantines and contact tracing, but what got this yahoo banned from social media and condemned in the press was promoting (however sarcastically) this affront, this defilement.
We ought to give up on capital punishment completely. Other than the momentary satisfaction of seeing a reviled person die, the only impact seems to be the cultivation of the baser responses that diminish us in the eyes of God and each other.
The Last of Deuteronomy
Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced. Deuteronomy 20:20
In our family, we tried to impose a rule at the dinner table. It was declared a QFZ – a “quote-free zone” – in an attempt to avoid the replay of scenes from movies like “Zoolander” from dominating the conversation. My wife and I had modest success, yet to this day our adult children, each with their own dinner table, deal with the intrusion of popular entertainment on the evening meal. At least I don’t have to hear from Strongbad anymore.
If I am going to be honest, however, I have to own my personal transgressions. We once saw a play on Broadway that was a drawing-room farce called “The Norman Conquests.” (The main character was a guy named Norman.) In the cast was Ken “The White Knight” Howard, who had one line, spoken in response to everything directed at him: Ah. It is a staple of interaction between me and my wife. Likewise, the self-abnegating exclamation, “I blame-a myself,” spoken by Steve “Georg Festrunk” Martin on Saturday Night Live, pops up almost anytime that, well, I blame-a myself.
When I see this instruction about laying siege to a city during wartime, it reminds me of another quotation that took up residence in my repertoire – though, thankfully, not in real-life circumstances. This permission to use trees for their wood follows a prohibition of cutting down trees that bear edible fruit. And that permission follows the requirement to call for peaceful surrender, even if belligerence between the two parties has transformed opponents into enemies. There is no fighting until the rules have been explained.
Millennia later, Butch Cassidy is challenged by another outlaw for leadership of their gang. The presumptive replacement chooses knives for the confrontation. Butch refuses to begin until the rules are clear. “Rules in a knife fight?” says the other guy, as Butch approaches. Before anything else is said, Butch lands a boot between the other guy’s legs. As he collapses to his knees, Butch tells Sundance, “Say one-two-three go,” which Sundance does very quickly. Butch ends the fight with a two-handed uppercut.
Rules in a knife fight? What a ridiculous concept. If the purpose is to win, then the only concern rightly ought to be who is left standing. Likewise, in besieging a city – that is, trapping the residents inside in the attempt to defeat them – what possible use could there be for rules? Any delay, any restriction might result in catastrophe for the combatants. And while it is the case that the nations of the world, in peaceful times, established conventions for the treatment of civilians and combatants in wartime, it is easy to see how they might be ignored by a military desperate to win.
It takes someone of deeper conviction than the will to win to embrace and enforce the ethic of war. It takes someone who understands – as this verse insists – that looking beyond the moment of battle or even the end of hostilities is the wisest course of action. When a winner emerges, the survivors (numerous, we hope) will have to eat. Cutting down shade trees for battlements might be necessary but cutting down fruit trees puts the future at risk when the war is over.
I have been watching (and resisting) a shift in the way our federal government has approached education over the past four years. Under previous administrations, public schools were the top priority of the Department of Education, a primacy that was mirrored on the state and, especially, local level. But the DOE has been led by someone philosophically opposed to the dominance of public institutions in educating the next generation of Americans. It is a little hard to suss out her exact reasons, but there seems to be an overwhelming dose of religious fervor in her campaign to fund so-called school choice. More than science or civics, she believes a proper education must reflect the values that a family (presumably) wishes to inculcate in the kids and, by extension, in society.
All of our personal children spent much of their education in private schools with a Jewish foundation. We sought no public money to make that happen. We also paid our taxes gladly (no kidding) in support of the public school systems from kindergarten to university. Our choice of Jewish schools did not exempt our kids from curricular parity with the schools they might otherwise have attended. And the seats they did not fill when they were not in the public system were not ours to cash in – they provided fruits that sustained the siege against ignorance that is the constant battle of civic society and the educators who lead the charge, until ignorance has been reduced.
Rules in a fight over full funding for public education? Say one-two-three-go.
The Last of Deuteronomy
Nor you must show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. Deuteronomy 19:21
If there is any instruction in the Jewish Bible that is used to criticize it more than “an eye for an eye,” I don’t know what it is. Jewish skeptics, Christian supersessionists, chauvinists from other traditions and secularists have pointed to the barbarity of a system that holds the potential to create a society of blind, dentally challenged amputees. If this is God’s instruction, they say, we can do without this kind of god.
Apologists for the Bible itself will sometimes demand consideration of its context. The instruction, they claim, is about the punishment fitting the crime, and about the equality of perpetrator and victim. It is to be an eye and only an eye for an eye. A wealthy or powerful perpetrator or one who is a skilled artisan cannot claim their hand is worth more than a poor and unskilled victim.
In fact, an extremely long discussion of ten possibilities to understand this instruction literally takes place in the Talmud. What if a dwarf put out the eye of a giant? What if a blind person put out the eye of a sighted person? What if someone was so faint of heart that imposing the penalty would not merely blind him but kill him? The conclusion (which is actually reached before the arguments take place) is that the Biblical text uses a shorthand to declare that the penalty is the value of an eye for an eye, not actual physical retribution. In modern terms, the perpetrator pays compensatory and punitive damages.
The Bible itself offers a similar workaround for another example of retribution. Ancient codes of conduct allowed for revenge killings in the case of manslaughter, that is, when one person unintentionally causes the death of another without malice aforethought. But in the next breath (well, set of verses), the Israelites are instructed to establish cities of refuge to which a manslayer could flee and enjoy safety from the next-of-kin.
Not being a Biblical literalist (or, perhaps, originalist) myself, I feel no need to defend the apparent plain instruction for retribution. And no matter the absurdity of some of the arguments in the Talmud, I am satisfied that almost from the beginning of what became Jewish law, nobody really believed this cruel punishment was right or just – even if it was there as God’s instruction in black and white.
For all this repudiation, retribution still manages to have a place in modern society. In some subcultures, it is quite literal; criminal enterprises have notoriously employed it against rivals. Art and literature (both high and low) build fantasies around just desserts that result in appropriate suffering for guilty characters. And nowhere is retribution more popular than in the blood sport that has become American politics.
If you were wondering where I was headed with this exposition, you have arrived at the answer. The most contentious political season in my memory has ended. (Perhaps more accurately, it has paused.) The chasm between the two candidates for president has not closed; it merely has been rendered irrelevant now that the polls are officially closed. The attempts of the candidates to inflict damage on each other were more than hostile, and too many of their followers tried to emulate their political champions. Now that there is a victor, there may be taste for retribution against those whose hopes have been dashed by the electorate.
I urge everyone to resist the impulse. I am certain that I am not the only one who feels I have been injured by the last four years of chaos. Civil discourse, an early casualty, may not be so easy to resurrect, but it is necessary, most especially among neighbors. Personal denigration ought to be forgiven on the condition that it end. And public policy should be debated and decided with dignity.
But most of all, everyone should eschew punitive actions against former opponents. If there were transgressions of the law, they should be investigated and prosecuted based on evidence. But bad behavior – from the mildest to the most egregious – is justified if it is returned in kind. It will become ensconced as the new norm.
We are all having enough trouble living in a world terrorized by a virus. We don’t need to create a society of blind, dentally challenged amputees.