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Justice, liberty, whatever: Torah for every occasion
Bereshit, Genesis 1:1-6:8
by Rabbi Stephen Listfield
Tree of Life Congregation
Oct 16, 2009 | 2052 views | 0 0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A guest article appeared in this newspaper a month and a half ago, following the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy. The author is a rabbinic leader based in New York City, and the article was syndicated to Jewish newspapers across the country.

The rabbi wrote: “Whether he knew it or not, Kennedy’s politics were rooted in the Bible. Deuteronomy 16:20 teaches, ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue.’ ”

I admire much of what Ted Kennedy achieved in his political career. He helped the disadvantaged. He supported Israel. He fought to free Soviet Jewry. But how does the rabbi know the source of Sen. Kennedy’s ideas and inspirations, especially when he suggests that the senator himself might not have known?

Does the rabbi mean that Kennedy’s work was rooted in “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” but not the work of other politicians? The answer is that every politician thinks that they are all for justice. I’ll bet you that Jimmy Carter knows Deuteronomy better than Ted Kennedy ever did. Should rabbis crank out articles praising Carter because his endless advice to Israel is rooted in “justice, justice” etc.? Don’t look for my article. I believe that Carter has a blind spot, if not downright antipathy, toward Israel. He quotes scripture and he probably loves the passage in Deuteronomy. So what?

For the July 4 edition of The Forward, an article – by a different rabbi – claimed that Thomas Jefferson’s call for liberty in the Declaration of Independence was pre-figured by Psalm 119:45. That verse begins, “I will walk in liberty.” If the rabbi gave any thought to the matter, he’d realize that Jefferson’s “liberty” means individual autonomy, while Torah’s “liberty” is about the obligation to follow God’s commands. Indeed, it’s too bad that the rabbi didn't read all six Hebrew words of that verse in Psalms. It says, “I will walk in liberty, for I seek Your precepts.”

It is possible to reconcile our lives as Jews and as Americans. But Judaism and Americanism are not identical. What liberty means to Thomas Jefferson and to Torah Judaism are immensely different. Jefferson was a great man, but he wasn't a yeshiva bochur. He sought to free the citizens of his republic from divine precepts, not to encourage them.

My point: If every notion of justice — no matter how contradictory one from the other — derives from the same verse in Deuteronomy, then the deuteronomic notion of justice really has no meaning. If Psalm 119 can be read as a forerunner of the Declaration of Independence, then the book of Psalms really has no meaning.

This week’s Torah portion of Bereshit describes Creation. We could say that the Torah contains the whole world. But that doesn’t mean that everything in the world is found in some Torah quotation. At the end of chapter 5 in Pirke Avot, we read “Turn Torah this way and that, for you will find that everything is in it.” All right, but you have to know where to look. You have to know how to interpret. You have to pay attention to the context. Most of all you have to know that wisdom requires more than a good sound bite.

In contrast to our two rabbinic pundits, a certain President of the United States had a highly sophisticated grasp of this subject: “Both [North and South] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other…. The prayers of both could not be answered.” (Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865.)

It’s easy to find a biblical quotation that justifies whatever we want. In a dumbed-down age, that’s good enough for some. I contend that it isn’t good enough for us. The faithful see Parshat Bereshit as an opportunity to enter once again into the Torah, striving to study more deeply than we ever did before. The answers, applications and interpretations aren’t always simple. But let us strive to study more deeply than ever before, and let us eschew the superficial and the facile as unworthy of the profound tradition from which we spring.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)

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