Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
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.
The Last of Deuteronomy
If the prophet speaks in the name of the Lord and the oracle does not come true, the oracle was not spoken by the Lord; the prophet has uttered it presumptuously; do not stand in dread of him. Deuteronomy 18:22
The long courtship of the American voter has come to a momentary halt. Those among us who were persuaded to do the right thing – formally choose our candidates for elected office – are in a honeymoon period with the winners. These are the days when our hopes are highest that the promises made to secure our support will become the standards of the next term of service.
Of course, if this isn’t your first rodeo, you have developed some measure of cynicism about whether the promises made on the campaign trail will be kept. It is a fact that no one other than a despot, large or local, can implement their preferences without collaboration from others. So, “I will lower your taxes” or “I will find you a job” or “I will keep your children safe” is aspirational. Perhaps the skill of the leader to make progress on the platform that they represented is really what those promises were all about.
But no one captured the skepticism that mitigates hope better than those two observers of the human condition, Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. They weren’t pundits assessing the political climate in the tumultuous days of 1966. They wrote about love and betrayal in their R&B classic “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Gladys Knight, John Fogerty, cartoon raisins and, most memorably, Marvin Gaye were among the most famous artists to sing the third verse: People say believe half of what you see; oh, and none of what you hear…
Apparently, the tradition of cultivated incredulity goes back to the Bible. As you may recognize if you think about it even a little, lots of things take place in the narrative because someone claims, “God said so.” (The text usually wound up in the more literary form of “Thus sayeth the Lord.”) The prophet was not so much someone who could predict future occurrences as someone who could channel God’s instruction in the shorter- or longer-term. So how was an individual, a group or a tribe to know whether the oracle presented by a claimant to divine insight was reliable, delusional or an opportunistic lie?
The Biblical answer is remarkably practical and modern for a source so spiritual and old. It is this: wait and see. If the prophet suggests something that will validate the vision, have patience. If it happens, the visionary spoke the truth. If not, it was made up. A false prophet likely never got a second chance.
There is a serious dilemma with this approach to credibility, especially if the prophet is urging commitment to a course of action that is meant to avoid catastrophe (marauding enemies, impending plagues, divine wrath, to name a few). Waiting to see if the zombies actually are going to rise from the ground and eat our flesh before we begin preparations is only the right choice if the zombies remain dormant. Or, a bit more seriously, waiting until hurricanes and fires ravage the environment before we take steps to curtail our contributions to climate change is only the right choice if those things never happen.
Campaign promises are not the same things as Biblical prophecies, though we sometimes treat them that way. Given the number of times over the past year or so we have heard political opponents accuse each other of falling down on their (previous) jobs, you might think that their aspirations are frustrated only by their personal shortcomings – or their blatant dishonesty. That may be true some of the time, but an equal ingredient is the unreasonable expectation of supporters that the best possible outcome is only one election away.
When the moment comes to deliver on prophecy or promise, someone will be disappointed. It is not human nature to suspend hopes and expectations. Those who want a prophet will be let down by a fraud. Those who were convinced that change was going to come will be disheartened if the tally goes against them. A better approach, at this moment, is to commit to the outcome we desire. If I was ready to work hard to get my contender elected, then my efforts have only begun.
I think that’s the only way to get it done. At least it is what I heard through the grapevine.
The Last of Deuteronomy
Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel. Deuteronomy 17:20
As I have said many times, I believe in the goodness of government. I mean that in both senses: I believe both that government is a good thing, and that government should be good.
The Bible does not necessarily endorse any particular form of government, although it is pretty obvious that the default style of government is a monarchy. Even Israelite tribal entities have a king-like structure. The chieftain is ordinarily the eldest son of the eldest son, and he represents the rest of the tribe in its interests in the larger nation.
Every nation-tribe the Israelites encounter has a king. There are also priests, prophets, generals, and other officials encountered along the narrative, but the natural assumption is that government is led by a king.
As Judaism developed, the sovereignty of a king was so well entrenched that even God became known as the king. In fact, to make the point of God’s ultimate supremacy, the semi-official title became “the king of kings of kings.” Jews who welcome in shabbat with a traditional hymn will recognize this description, chanted with reverence and affection.
Nowhere are we instructed to have a king. In fact, the Israelites are cautioned against it, but God knows the people will want to be like all the other nations and demand a king of their own. So, with an almost audible sigh that we can still hear every time we read about it, rules are regulations are set up for this eventual king. Yes, he gets to be in charge, but he is restrained from using the office as an opportunity to enrich himself beyond the needs of the office. He may not establish a harem. He may not collect a personal stable. He may not start expeditionary wars. And he is required to write a copy of the Torah for himself and to keep it handy at all times, to remind himself that he is not above its instruction.
So, it may not be that the Bible considers the only real government it knows such a good thing, but it does require that government to be good.
The king is authorized by being anointed, that is, having consecrating oil poured on his head by a priest. And once so anointed, his authority becomes hereditary…sort of. If he is a good king who finds favor in the eyes of the Lord, as the saying goes, then he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel.
The king was not elected. Democracy as a form of government was unheard of in the time of Moses. Even to speak of the democratization of authority is anachronistic. People may have acclaimed a king, but they never voted for one, never mind with secret ballots or competitive campaigns. Each year at what today we call Rosh HaShanah the king’s reign aged. When the king died, abdicated, or was deposed, someone else took his place. A good king – or at least a powerful one – was succeeded by one of his sons.
Kingship, like everything else, was attributed to God’s will back then. Performing God’s will made a king good, an opportunity open to every human being. But if a king was good, then his constituency benefited. And if he wasn’t, then the people prayed for God to turn him out. Or they killed him and installed another.
I’m no anarchist and I’m no libertarian. The people I know in government are overwhelmingly good people – even the ones with whom I disagree. Some of them are notably not, but there is a less draconian remedy should someone somehow ascend to the head of modern government who is not worthy of the post. During their term, they answer to the government itself. And as their term ends, they are subject to being deposed by the will of the people. Government is a good thing.
It’s a great solution that wasn’t thought of when kings were kings. You won’t find democracy in the Bible, let alone the details of representative government. For someone who might describe themself as a “Biblical government originalist,” all sorts of conditions are unmet and, frankly, never formally amended. Just sayin’.
Nonetheless, this mostly faithful Jew believes in the goodness of government.