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Why I'm a Rabbi For Obama

This week's portion: Justice Shall You Pursue

This week we're in parashat Shoftim, late in the book of Dvarim (Deuteronomy.) This parsha is the source of one of the most well-known verses from Torah: "Justice, justice shall you pursue!" In this parsha we read: establish towns where someone who has accidentally committed manslaughter can flee, so that the spiral of violence and retribution doesn't self-perpetuate. We read: do not punish someone on the testimony of a single witness.

We read: on the eve of war, if someone has planted a vineyard but not yet harvested -- built a house but not yet consecrated it -- become engaged but not yet wed -- let that person go home and fulfill those holy promises. (I wrote about that in 2006.) We read: when you approach a town to attack it, offer it terms of peace.

And we also read that if that town refuses the terms of peace, Torah says to attack them and then put all of their men to the sword and enslave their women. And that's only for towns which are far away; for the towns which are nearby, Torah says, the ones containing inhabitants who are known to be idolaters, kill them all. Ouch.

And then we read: even when you are besieging a city, you must not cut down its trees. Are trees human, the Torah asks, that they could flee before you? Therefore show mercy, especially to fruit-bearing trees.

As I study this parsha this year I'm struck by my own oscillation. Some of these verses are beautiful to me, while others make me squirm with discomfort. I don't want such violence to be enshrined in my holy text.

The theme of the parsha, as I understand it, is justice. The cities of refuge are a matter of justice. Releasing young soldiers who haven't yet lived full lives is a matter of justice. Sparing the trees is a matter of justice.

And in the Biblical understanding, the stuff about killing all the men in an enemy city -- or, worse, killing everyone, including the women and children -- is also a matter of justice. But in today's paradigm our understanding of what is just and righteous has shifted. Killing all the enemy men, or slaughtering men and women and children alike, may have been understood as justice in antiquity. Today it would be an unthinkable massacre. I am grateful to live at a moment in time when we understand this kind of violence as horrific.

But violence is still endemic. Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that "scores of Israeli youth" attacked a Palestinian teen named Jamal Julani in Jerusalem, rendering him unconscious and hospitalized. (NYT: Young Israelis Held in Attack on Arabs.) "If it was up to me, I would have murdered him," said one fifteen-year-old boy. Two of the other suspects in the beating are girls, one of them only thirteen years old. (The NYT blog The Lede has more: Account of a 'Lynch' in Jerusalem on Facebook.)

It's enough to make me wish for cities of refuge where people could go to break the cycle of the endless violence. Though in Biblical times, the refuge was only for accidental manslaughter, and it doesn't sound to me like the harm here was inflicted accidentally.

Fortunately Jamal Julani survived the beating. But what is wrong with our world that kids of thirteen and fifteen are swept up in so much hate? What is wrong with our understanding of Torah that we pay more attention to the injunction against cutting down a fruit tree (which is taught each year at Tu BiShvat with great gusto -- see, e.g., the beautiful exhibit "Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art, and Jewish Thought" at the Contemporary Jewish Museum) than to the injunction to pursue justice and righteousness with all our might? (Even fruit trees aren't always safe -- as described in this 2012 Rabbis for Human Rights report about settlers destroying olive groves.)

We've entered the month of Elul, a time for soul-searching and teshuvah. I know I need to make teshuvah for giving in to the inclination to turn away from stories like this one, for closing my eyes to injustice and suffering caused by people who share my religious tradition and my holy text. But Torah does not belong only to those who use it to justify such actions. Torah belongs equally to we who are horrified by these stories.

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof: justice, justice shall you pursue. May we be strengthened in justice and righteousness. May we be brave enough to face injustice and to work toward transformation and healing, here and everywhere.


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