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.
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.
The Last of Deuteronomy
or erect a stone pillar, for such the Lord your God detests. Deuteronomy 16:22
A very long time ago (in my life, that is), I was a student in a pristine building that was the newest iteration of a venerated educational institution. The setting was magnificent, the facilities modern, the change from the previous location breathtaking. Unsurprisingly, about five months into the academic year, a dedication for the campus was scheduled. Suddenly, plaques started showing up everywhere. Large brass signs were installed on expanses of wall. Letters paying tribute to donors were affixed above doorways and walkways. Smaller signage appeared near windows and on furniture.
I was offended, as only a young and self-confident man could be, that with all the learning and teaching and good works going on in this new building, it was people with money who were going to be honored. I was pretty vocal about it to the administration, and the president of the university, who was also one of my professors, actually devoted a day of class to discussing the concern. He made no attempt to defend the practice of naming structures for generous donors; he acknowledged it as a convention and something necessary to secure the kind of capital funding needed to create the space for learning. Instead, he talked about the donors themselves. He wanted us to know who they were – people he had gotten to know when he was younger and they were poorer, and what the values were that they embraced before they had money to put where their mouths were.
I can acknowledge all these years later what my prejudices were about rich people (not many of whom I actually knew), which was a reflection of my attitudes about money in general when I didn’t have any. But the lesson of that day, and of my experiences over the longer haul, is that being rich doesn’t make you a person undeserving of recognition.
A few years later, in a different city, I had a conversation with a retired New York City social worker. I asked him about the lessons he learned about people in his job. He responded that the most important thing he learned was the truth of what his own father had told him as he began his career – but that he did not want to believe. It was this: just because you are poor does not mean you are a good person.
The lesson I took from that pair of experiences is that money has nothing to do with character. Like every other measurable commodity in life, it is what you do with what you have that is an indication of your values. If you project your personal worth onto your net worth, any correlation will be accidental.
Putting your own name on a building (as opposed to honoring someone’s finer qualities with a tribute to their acts or generosity) is most certainly a matter of ego. It has never been an option for me, so I cannot represent the thought process that goes into a decision to slap my name on brick and mortar, but I do believe there is a sense that, by doing so, a permanence of some kind is secured. We know that’s not true, of course. Buildings rise and fall, and lately even monuments seem to have an expiration date. But investing a sense of recognition, power and longevity in construction is an old mistake. To use an old pun, call it the edifice complex.
I get it, I must say. Stones seem to have more permanence that lives. They have been around longer, generally resist deterioration and have “witnessed” the rise and fall of circumstances and even civilizations. Among those fallen civilizations were those that attributed such longevity to a corresponding divinity. Stone pillars, assembled from raw materials or carved into likenesses, were fetishistic representations of pagan gods. The Bible’s innovation – a deity without a (permanent) physical manifestation – stands against the inclination to make the false equivalency between spiritual permanence and physical permanence.
Likewise, human beings who feel powerless may very well turn to the relative impenetrability of a solid structure. After all, a rock feels no pain. But in the end, relying on such a structure is hollow trust. Putting up a building, erecting a monument to yourself, constructing a wall to make a case for your own greatness – all of those things are insights not into wealth, but into personal poverty. It’s easy to see why it makes someone detestable.
The Last of Deuteronomy
Then the Levite, who has no hereditary portion as you have, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your settlements shall come and eat their fill, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the enterprises you undertake. Deuteronomy 14:29
I like to think that I have lived a blessed life, and I certainly hope that those blessings continue for me and those around me. I do not believe that I have earned these blessings; I have the good fortune to have been born into circumstances that allow me to help provide for the Levite and the stranger, the fatherless and the widow. My values include efforts to extend my blessings to others.
It has taken me a long time to appreciate that such an approach is pretty much the definition of privilege. As I have come to understand it, privilege is not the same as arrogance. It is instead a presumed advantage, even when that advantage is not pursued out of malevolence.
Call me a snowflake or a wuss or whatever you like, but before you dismiss my confession, take another listen to the voice in which this Deuteronomic instruction is reported. Were I a Levite, stranger, orphan, or widow, it would be immediately clear to me that I was not being addressed in either the collective or singular “you.” The desired norm is to have a hereditary portion, a settled place to live and enterprises that are successful or, perhaps more Biblically, to be “blessed.”
The Levites, for all their honor and access to the divine, are permanently disenfranchised from owning land. The stranger – that is, not merely someone unknown, but someone not a part of our people or tribe – requires special instruction to live among us. The fatherless and the widow are some combination of young and female and without a grown-ass man to care for them. They are the objects of this instruction, not the subjects.
It is not my conclusion that the Bible does not claim that all people are created equal. From the very beginning, it is clear that humanity is descended from a set of common ancestors. Each of us is born into this world innocent and filled with potential. But from that moment on, we are victims of choices, some made by us, most made for us. A man who works the land, a woman who suffers in childbirth. A son who mocks his father’s nakedness, another who covers the embarrassment. A father’s favorite who sells his birthright, a mother’s favorite who steals a blessing. In each generation, the Bible chooses the subjects of the story and relegates the rest to supporting roles, to anonymous support, to being acted upon.
Does that perspective nullify the worth of Biblical instruction? Hardly. But it does raise, in my mind, at least two questions. The first is, what is the goal of inviting the under-privileged into my home? If it is merely to ameliorate their disadvantage, that is, to assuage their hunger, then my generosity is only a delaying tactic. Certainly, they will hunger again tomorrow, defined by their disenfranchisement. The second is, what is the nature of my compassion? However deeply and intensely it is felt, it is, at some level, condescending. “Oh, you poor thing” is as much a judgment as it is an expression of concern.
Taking any verse or group of verses out of context is disingenuous, whether discussing sacred texts, legal decisions, or public oratory. So, I will acknowledge that it is unfair to conclude that the entirety of the biblical ethos is addressed to the privileged of that time or any time. But it is impossible to ignore that there is a streak of noblesse oblige in so much of what is taught as God’s will.
The antidote, I believe, is empathy. Appreciating a commonality of circumstances with others changes an act of largesse offered at arm’s length into an embrace. In other places, we are reminded that we were strangers once. Most everyone will be orphaned, half the number of life partners will be widowed, more than a few will await no hereditary portion.
At least in my Jewish tradition, empathy is a lesson God learns from human beings. Having no peer, the Holy One is stuck with judgmental responses – compassion, anger, approbation, actual judgment. They are gifted to members of the human family to give us God-like powers.
But empathy requires something common, both in the sense of “shared” and in the sense of “ordinary.” The Levite is my brother, the widow is my sister, the orphan is my ward and the stranger is my long-lost family. Maybe I am not evolved enough to say “all that I have is yours,” but I hope I can be wise enough to invite you to live in my world because I live in yours.
In the end, that’s the blessing of being a human being. And the privilege.