Torah and Modern Morality by Bennett Muraskin
The Torah, or the first five books of the Bible, have a special significance for Jews. They are considered more sacred than the other books of the Bible, grouped in the Prophets and the Writings. Only the Torah is placed in the Ark of every synagogue, carried around the sanctuary and offered up to be kissed by the congregants. The core of every synagogue service is the reading of the Torah portion for the week. Only the Torah is read from start to finish in an annual cycle of readings culminating in the celebratory holiday Simchas Torah. Although the Talmud is theoretically the basis for rabbinic Judaism, rabbis are far more likely to cite the Torah in their sermons and far more Jews read the Torah than the Talmud. Therefore, it is fitting to focus on the Torah’s moral worth. Is the Torah the basis for modern morality? Most Jews, even non-observant ones, would probably say yes, citing the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:2-14), the commandment to “love your neighbor like yourself” (Lev. 19:18) and the often repeated warning, “do not oppress the stranger.” But few of these stand up to close scrutiny.
The first three commandments demand loyalty to God, forbid the making of graven images and taking the Lord’s name in vain. No morality there. The fourth mandates observance of the Sabbath, a noble institution to be sure, but it is explained as commemorating the day God rested after creating the world. The fifth “Honor your father and mother” is vitiated by the lack of a reciprocal obligation forbidding child abuse, as well as the second commandment in which the sins of fathers are inherited by four generations of ancestors. The sixth commandment, “you shall not kill” or “you shall not murder” is hard to take seriously in view of the fifteen or more capital offenses that are decreed in the Torah, for “crimes” including homosexuality, breaking the Sabbath , cursing a parent and promoting the worship of other gods. God Himself murders so many Hebrews and Gentiles in the Torah that it is impossible to keep count. The seventh commandment forbidding adultery applies only to women. Married men can have as many affairs with single women as they like. The eighth commandment against stealing and the ninth against bearing false witness are indeed worthy principles, however the tenth commandment against coveting a neighbor’s possessions includes a man’s wife and slaves among them.
As for loving one’s neighbor and not oppressing the stranger, what attitude toward the neighbor or stranger is conveyed by God’s explicit instructions to the Israelites to exterminate every last person living in Canaan and His constant vilification of “idolators?”
The following is an attempt to draw up a balance sheet from a secular humanistic perspective.
FAMILY RELATIONS Let’s start close to home---with family relations. The tone is set very early with the subordination of women to men. (Gen. 3:16-19) The male supremacist bias of the Torah is so obvious that it needs little comment here. God is the classic authoritarian father figure who speaks through his agent, Moses and appoints his brother, Aaron as high priest. Miriam is a “prophetess” who lacks any power. Whereas, Miriam is severely punished for questioning Moses’ authority, Aaron, who commits the same offenses gets off with a reprimand. (Num. 12: 1-15)
Menstrual women are treated like lepers. (Lev. 15: 19-24) After childbirth women who deliver girls are considered “unclean” for twice as long than if they deliver boys. (Lev. 12: 1-5). A woman who has no children is completely useless. Divorce is the exclusive prerogative of the male. (Deut. 24: 1-3). Partisans of women’s liberation can celebrate the courage of the Hebrew midwives (Ex. 1: 17-20), but in nearly every other instance, they must argue against the text.
Favoritism typifies family relationships in the Torah from the beginning. Brothers Cain and Abel each make offerings to God, but without explanation, God accepts only Abel’s. Seeing how upset Abel becomes, God urges Abel not to mope, but provides no explanation for rejecting His offering and no warning not to take revenge on his brother. After all, this is before God has issued any commandments. When Cain kills Abel, God condemns the murder. The answer to the question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is an unequivocal YES. (Gen. 4: 3-10). But is this how the ultimate father figure should behave toward his children?
Our patriarchs and matriarchs are a dysfunctional bunch. Soon after Abraham appears on the scene, he twice allows powerful kings to take his wife, Sarah, as a concubine, by pretending she is his sister. As it turns out, both kings would have respected Sarah if only Abraham had the decency to introduce her as his wife. Then he profits when the kings shower him with gifts to atone for their guilt. (Gen. 12:13-20, 20:2-18). For her part, Sarah abuses Abraham’s concubine, Hagar (Gen. 16:6-9) and, with Abraham’s consent, throws her and Abraham’s first born son, Ishmael out of their home to die in the desert. Why? Because Ishmael teases his younger half-brother, Isaac. (Gen. 21:9-13). And in one of the worst cases of child abuse, Abraham nearly murders Isaac, just because God told him to. (Gen. 22:2) At least it is comforting to know that Isaac and Ishmael reunite to bury their father (Gen. 25:9), despite the abuse each of them suffered at his hands.
On the other side of the ledger, Abraham peacefully divides land with his nephew Lot (Gen.13: 8-11), saves Lot and his family from enemy attack (Gen.14: 14-16) and refuses the spoils of his military victory. (Gen. 14: 21-24) Abraham’s most admirable act is more altruistic. He challenges God when he learns of His decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” and then bargains with Him to save the lives of the innocent (Gen. 18: 22-32), although God annihilates the cities anyway—people, buildings and vegetation alike---(Gen. 19:24-25) Unfortunately, Abraham did not show the same courage when it came to the welfare of his sons, Ishmael and Isaac.
Following in the footsteps of his father, Isaac is also ready to offer his wife Rebecca as a concubine to a powerful king (Gen. 26:6-10). Isaac is not much of a factor thereafter, as Rebecca becomes the dominant partner in the marriage. She distinguishes herself by conspiring with her younger son, Jacob, to cheat her older son, Esau out of Isaac’s blessing. This is no small matter as it results in Isaac decreeing that Esau must serve his brother. (Gen. 27: 1-40). As one might expect, this provokes Esau to plot Isaac’s murder (Gen. 27: 41-42), but eventually his temper cools and, to the credit of both brothers, they reconcile (Gen. 32: 4--33:15).
Sibling rivalry reaches it nadir in the Joseph story. Because Jacob so shamelessly favors Joseph over his brothers, all except for Reuben decide to murder him. Reuben talks them out of it, so they sell him into slavery instead (Gen. 37: 1-28). Joseph becomes a slave in Egypt, but after a number of adventures, he miraculously becomes one of Pharoah’s top executives. When his brothers come to Egypt to escape famine, he takes his revenge by accusing them of spying, seizing the most innocent brother, young Benjamin, as hostage and planting a valuable object on another who he arrests and threatens to enslave (Gen. 42: 9--45:3). However, this time his brothers act decently by sticking up for each other. Joseph relents and forgives them (Gen. 45: 9-21). Their father, Jacob comes to Egypt for a grand reunion. In keeping with family “tradition,” the old man blesses Joseph’s younger son, Ephraim over the older son, Manasseh (Gen. 48:19-20) although, in this case, there is no record that his favoritism caused friction between the two.
Jacob also makes predictions about the future of his sons, praising some and denigrating others. Among those Jacob condemns is Reuben. His offense was that he once slept with Jacob’s concubine. (Gen. 48: 4) This deed was apparently more important to Jacob than Reuben Joseph’s life. He also lambastes his youngest son, Benjamin as “a ravenous wolf” (Gen. 49:27) even though he was not even born when Joseph disappeared, and is previously depicted as a beloved child (Gen. 42: 34-38). On the other hand, Jacob’s description of Simeon and Levi as lawless and violent (Gen 49: 4-7) is a barbed reference to their conduct toward a foreign tribe. Here is the story: A member of this tribe raped their sister, Dinah. However the tribal elders agreed to make amends, going so far as to agree to share their wealth with Jacob’s clan and prove their kinship by having their men circumcised. While they were recovering from the operation, Simeon and Levi massacred the men. The rest of the brothers then joined in, destroying the tribe’s town, seizing their property and enslaving their wives and children. (Gen. 35: 5-29). However, Jacob says nothing about his other sons’ role in this atrocity. One is also left wondering how Levi’s descendants could become the priestly caste, given this blot on his name.
Moses’ family is shown to be more caring. His mother Yocheved, saves Moses from Pharoah’s decree to murder Jewish baby boys, although setting him adrift in a river is a strange way to do it. After Pharoah’s daughter plucks baby Moses from the river, Yocheved and Moses' sister, Miriam see to his welfare (Ex. 2). Years later in the desert, when God punishes Miriam, but not Aaron, for questioning Moses’ authority, both brothers plead with God on her behalf. (Num. 12).
After Moses flees Egypt to Midian and gets married, an angry God is the source of grave family crisis. He threatens to kill Moses for neglecting to circumcise his son, Gershom. Moses’ wife, Zipporah, comes to the rescue by seizing a sharp stone and performing the operation on the spot. (Ex. 4: 24-26). Poor Gershon is barely heard from again. Neither is Zipporah, whom Moses practically abandons.
The Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs behavior toward each other and their children is reprehensible. Perhaps we can at least derive some satisfaction (shep nakhes) from the siblings, who were generally more forgiving.
RELATIONS WITH NON-JEWS What about the treatment of non-Jews? The die is cast very early when Noah curses his son, Ham and all his descendants including Cushites (apparently Africans,) Egyptians, Canaanites and Philistines (Gen 9:22-25, 10: 6-13).
The Ammonites and Moabites, descendants of Lot, Abraham’s nephew, originally enjoy protected status (Deut. 2:9,19), despite their depraved origins in incest between Lot and his daughters (Gen. 19:30-38). They lose it by opposing the Israelites’ attempts to reach the Promised Land. This deed earns them eternal opprobrium. They may never be accepted as Israelites and worse than that, Israelites are enjoined never to concern themselves with their welfare. (Deut. 23:4-7)
The Moabites are lumped together with the Midianites, two neighboring tribes. Both are reviled as idol worshippers and their women as whores. (Num. 25:1-13) Like the Ammorites, they must be shunned. (The heroine of the Book of Ruth is a Moabite and her great grandson is none other than King David, but this is not Torah.) Moses leads a ferocious attack on attack on the Midianites, sparing only the virgins, who are enslaved. (Num. 31: 1-18).
Yet Moses married a Midianite, Zipporah (Ex. 2:16) who, as related above, saved his life. (Ex. 4:24-26) Moses also received refuge (Ex. 2:20-21) and valuable advice from his Midianite father-in-law, Jethro. (Ex. 18: 17-27) Some gratitude!
What about Ishmael and his Arab descendants? Ishmael, Abraham’s first son, is described as a “wild ass of a man” constantly at war with his neighbors (Gen: 16:12), although God promises to “make a great nation of him.”(Gen 21:18). Ishmaelites appear briefly as merchants who buy Joseph and transport him to Egypt, and then virtually disappear from the Torah.
Esau, the older twin son of Isaac and Rebecca, fares better. Initially, he is depicted as a dummy who sells his birthright to his younger brother, Isaac, for a dish of stew (Gen. 25:30-34), but later he is treated respectfully (Gen. 32:4, 33: 1-15) as the founder of the nation of Edom. During the conquest of Canaan, God commands the Israelites not to attack Edom because Edomites are kinsmen. (Deut. 2:2) After two generations, they may “be admitted into the congregation of the Lord.” (Deut. 23: 8-9).
The Egyptians suffer the fate of being chosen by God to enslave the Israelites (Gen 15:13-15) and then to be punished for it. Actually, the Egyptians had a real grievance against the Israelites, because when Joseph was power in Egypt, he gave his brothers the choice land (Gen. 47: 5-6), reduced all Egyptian peasants to serfdom and forced them to relocate far from their homes (Ex. 47:14-25). So perhaps the Egyptian enslavement of the Israelites was an act of revenge.
As is well known from the Exodus story, God afflicts all the Egyptians with ten plagues, each more horrible than the next, culminating in the death of every Egyptian first born, including slaves, prisoners and livestock. These victims have no conceivable responsibility for Pharoah’s oppressive rule. (Ex. 11:5, 12:29) To add insult to injury, as the Israelites begin their exodus, they are authorized to strip the Egyptians of all their wealth. (Ex. 3:22, 12:35-36) Israelites are forbidden ever to return there to live permanently. (Deut. 17:16)
However, the Torah has a schizophrenic attitude toward Egypt. Abraham and Jacob’s sons both visit there to escape famine and are welcomed. (Gen. 12:10-20, 42, 43) Perhaps for that reason, Egyptians, like Edomites, are not to be abhorred, and may be “admitted into the congregation of the Lord” in the third generation after a conversion. (Deut. 23: 8-9)
It should pain any Jew to speak of the Torah’s treatment of the Canaanites. Their fate is to be exterminated down to the last man, woman and child in an Israelite jihad—or to be completely expelled, depending on the passage. This is no passing fancy. Genocide is mandated in the Torah (Ex. 23:23-32, 33:2. 34: 11-16, 24, Num. 21:33-35. Deut. 7: 1-2, 16, 22-24, 12: 2-3, 20:16-18, 31:3,4-6) and carried out ruthlessly in the Book of Joshua, which follows Deuteronomy and probably had the same author. The Torah justifies these measures by accusing the Canaanites and the six other nations who inhabited the land God promised the Israelites, of human sacrifice, incest, bestiality, homosexuality, witchcraft and other “abhorrent practices” (Lev. 18: 24-30, Deut 18: 9-14). But isn’t it just like a conqueror to demonize the natives in order to justify exterminating them? Were all of them guilty and deserving of such treatment?
If a town surrendered, the Israelites enslaved rather than slaughtered the inhabitants. If the resisted, the men were to be massacred; the women, children and property seized as the spoils of war. (Deut: 20:10-14) One people, the Gibeonites fooled the Israelites into thinking they were not natives of Canaan. Once this deception was discovered, they were permitted to live under Israelite rule as a servant class, i.e. “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” (Joshua 9:3-27)
And what about the tribes of Arad, Heshbon and Bashan? They are exterminated merely for being in the way. (Num. 21:1-3, Num. 21:33-35, Deut. 2:26-35, 3:3-7). The people of Heshbon are accused of refusing to allow the Israelites to pass through their land, but this is an unfair accusation. It is God himself who deliberately makes their king uncooperative, so He has an excuse to flex His muscles and wreak terrible vengeance. (Deut.2: 30).
“Do not oppress or mistreat the stranger,” is repeated 36 times in the Torah and usually accompanied by the explanation “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (See for example, Ex. 22:20-23, Lev. 19:33, Deut. 10:18-19, 24: 17-18) Furthermore, the Torah states explicitly that “there shall be one law for the citizen and the stranger who dwells among you,” (Ex. 12-49) and that the stranger is entitled to equal love and respect. (Lev. 19:33-34). So how do we account for the hate and murderous intentions displayed toward most of the foreign peoples encountered by the Israelites?
The answer is that there are two categories of strangers---resident aliens (ger in Hebrew) and foreigners. The former are those have agreed to live under Jewish law (Lev. 18:26), so that they are practically Israelites They enjoy protected status and may intermarry with Israelites, but suffer three major disabilities. They cannot own land (Lev. 25:45-46); if they fall into slavery, it is a permanent condition (Jewish slaves must be freed after 7 years) and unlike Jewish slaves, they may be treated “ruthlessly” by their owners. (Ex. 21-2, Lev. 25:45-46).
Foreigners, on the other hand, suffer a far worse fate. If they are not murdered or enslaved for actively resisting Israelite conquest, conduct forbidden among Jews is permissible if directed against them. For instance, they may be kidnapped and enslaved (Deut. 24:7), required to pay interest on loans, dunned for their unpaid debts and are exempt from debt annulment after 7 years. (Ex. 22:24, Deut. 15, 1-3, 23:21) As non-Jews without resident alien status, most would be considered idol worshippers, in which case they would be better off dead. Israelites are commanded to destroy them, their cities and their religious symbols, root and branch. (Deut. 7:5. 12:2. 13: 13-17) They are not permitted to live in the land of Israel and it is even forbidden for Israelites to save their lives. (Ex. 23:33, Deut. 20:16)
The Torah could not be more explicit: “If your brother…or your son or daughter or…wife…or your closest friend entices you in secret saying ‘Come let us worship other gods’…from among the gods of the people around you…show him no pity or compassion…but take his life. Let your hand be the first against him to put him to death…Stone him to death, for he sought to make you stray from the Lord your God… “ And if you uncover idolators in a town God has given to the Israelites, “put the inhabitants of that town to the sword…Doom it and all that is in it to destruction: gather all its spoils into the open square and burn the town and all its spoil as a holocaust to the Lord your God…” (Deut. 13: 7-17). The commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself” obviously does not apply to idolators, as they are considered unworthy of life. In fact it only applied to other Israelites.
Actually, the accusation in the Torah that pagan peoples are "idolators" is slanderous. As Richard Elliot Friedman notes in his acclaimed book, Who Wrote the Bible? the religions of other ancient peoples in the Mid-East revolved around worshipping nature gods. The statues they built were considered representations of these gods, not the gods themselves. Further, Israelites worshipped pagan gods as well, especially the Canaanite El and the female Asherah. The word “Israel” actually means “El rules.”
In sum, there are no “righteous Gentiles” in the Torah, with the possible exception of Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law. Take the case of Balaam, a foreign prophet, who refuses to curse the Israelites in defiance of the King of Moab (Num: 23:7-10). Yet he is still depicted as a fool (Num. 22:22-35) or as someone who leads Israelite men to sin (Num. 31:16). His fate is to be massacred on Moses’ order, along with other enemies of Israel, in this case the Midianites. (Num. 31:8).
THE LEGAL SYSTEM AND PERSONAL ETHICS Israelites--and for the most part resident aliens---live under a harsh, but relatively egalitarian legal code. Capital offenses include promoting the worship of other gods (Deut. 13: 2-6, 7-11), blasphemy (Lev. 24:10-16,23), violating the Sabbath (Num. 15:32-36), striking, insulting or defying a parent (Ex. 21:15, 17, Lev. 20:9, Deut. 21: 18-21), false prophecy (Deut. 18:20), homosexuality (Lev. 20:13) and witchcraft (Ex. 22:17). The injunction to inflict punishment by taking an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is meant quite literally. (Ex. 21: 23-25; Lev. 21:23-25, Deut. 19:21), although in one case, the Torah, in a strange way, recognizes the existence of mitigating circumstances. Where a man is killed accidentally, he can flee to a “city of refuge.” (Deut. 19: 19: 2-6) How long he must remain there or what happens if a “blood-avenger” acting for the victim catches up to the perpetrator before he gets there is not stated. It can also be argued that the “eye for an eye” mandate is an example of proportional justice and the fact that it applies to all persons, regardless of social rank, is an example of equal justice.
The primitive concept that children are responsible for their parents’ sins (Ex. 20:5) is later contradicted by Deut. 24:16, which says that each person is responsible his own wrongdoing. The legal code is softened somewhat by the requirement that it takes two witnesses to prove a criminal offense. (Num. 35:30, Deut. 17: 6-7; Deut 19:15).
Israelites are indeed commanded to do many admirable things---not to spread false rumors or give false testimony, and not to show favoritism or render unfair decisions in legal matters. (Ex. 23, 1-3, Lev. 19:15, Deut. 16: 18-20). The administration of justice is placed in the hands of magistrates, who are enjoined to be impartial and refuse bribes. (Ex. 32:8, Deut. 16: 18-19). Equal justice is to be meted out to the rich and the poor. (Ex. 23: 2-3) One must not stand by while a neighbor’s blood is shed (Lev. 19:16) but this does not give anyone license to take vengeance or hold a grudge (Lev. 19:18). It would be difficult to think of a more powerful moral imperative than the commandment not to bear false witness against one's neighbor. (Ex. 20: 13, Deut. 5:17)
Dishonesty of any kind is forbidden (Lev. 19:11), including moving property markers (Deut. 19:14) and cheating in a business transaction. (Lev. 25: 14-16) Honest weights and measures must be maintained (Ex. 19:35, Deut. 25: 13-16). There is an affirmative obligation to return lost property to its owner or hold it in trust, if the owner is unknown. (Ex: 23:4, Deut 22:1-3) and to help one’s enemy lift up his beast of burden if it has collapsed due to a heavy load. (Ex. 23:5. Deut. 22:4). In building a new home, safety precautions must be taken to avoid accidents. (Deut. 22:8) These rules clearly promote ethical behavior and should be important components of any civilized society.
SLAVERY It may come as a surprise that people whose identity is ostensibly based on their liberation from slavery did not abolish slavery among themselves. At least the Torah prescribes humane treatment for all Israelite slaves. (Ex. 21:8-11, Lev. 25: 35-43). In Ex. 21:2, we read that male (not female) Israelite slaves must be freed after 7 years and provided with sustenance to get a start as a free person. In Deut. 15: 12-14, this right is extended to all Israelite slaves. Escaped slaves, presumably even non-Jewish ones, entering Israel must not be returned to their masters. (Deut. 23:16) But slavery, as an institution, is accepted as part of the natural landscape, with blatant discrimination against non-Jews.
SOCIAL JUSTICE Jewish law is especially concerned with the plight of the poor and disadvantaged. In fact, as Edward Greenstein wrote in Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts, edited by Barry W. Holtz, "Many of the Torah's laws which distinguish them from the laws of other nations in the ancient Near East seem to exemplify a special regard for the disadvantaged." This may have been due to the significance of the Exodus in Jewish tradition and/or the likelihood that the earliest Hebrews were malcontents who left hierarchical Canaanite cities to establish egalitarian farming communities.
In any event, the Torah provides widows, orphans and the poor with special protection. (Ex. 22:21, Deut. 10: 18-19, 14:29, 24: 17-22) Poor people must be generously supported (Deut. 15: 7, 11) and must not be further impoverished or harassed if they fall into debt, (Ex. 22: 24-26, Deut. 24: 6, 10-13). It is forbidden to abuse a needy or destitute laborer or delay payment of his wages. (Lev. 19:13, Deut. 24: 14-14). While working in the fields, a worker may eat his fill of the produce. (Deut. 23: 25-26.) Landowners must leave the corners of their fields unharvested and leave whatever crops may have been missed in the initial harvesting process for the poor to take their portion. (Lev. 19:9, 32:22, Deut. 19:9, 24: 19-21) Every seven years all land must be left fallow and whatever grows on its own also belongs to the poor. (Ex. 23: 10-11, Lev. 25: 6, Deut. 24: 19) Other measures to insure a relatively fair distribution of wealth include a ban on usury (Ex. 22:24-26), debt cancellation every 7 years (Deut 15:1) , the right of a dispossessed landowner to reclaim his property (Lev. 25: 26-287 and wholesale property redistribution and liberation of Israelite slaves every 50 years, i.e the Jubilee year. (Lev. 25: 10-12) This is the meaning of the often-misunderstood phrase “proclaim liberty throughout the land.” It has nothing to do with political liberty, but everything to do with social equality. Even kings are forbidden to accumulate excessive wealth! (Deut. 17:17)
We know that many of these laws, especially the most radical ones, were never enforced, but their very existence must have served as a reminder of the importance of social justice as an ideal in Jewish tradition.
That at least some of these concepts still have resonance is shown by the existence of an organization called Jubilee 2000 that sought IMF forgiveness of Third World debt in honor of the new millennium. It succeeded in reducing debt service payments for some Third World nations by up to 30%.
The crown jewel in the Torah's conception of social justice is the Sabbath. The entire population, including strangers and slaves, (and draft animals!) are granted one day off from work every week to rest (Ex. 20:8, 23:12) and in Deuteronomy, this is said to commemorate the Israelite liberation from Egyptian slavery. (Deut. 5:12) Chaim Zhitlovsky, one of the greatest philosophers of Jewish secularism, called the Sabbath "the holiday with social significance, when for the first time the right to rest was proclaimed for the slave and the worker." It is undoubtedly one of the greatest Jewish contributions to world civilization and a direct precursor to the struggle for a shorter work week and more vacation time.
ATTITUDE TOWARD AUTHORITY As impressive as these laws are, it must be admitted that the Torah’s primary mission is not social justice, but to enshrine the Israelites as God’s Chosen People and to suppress all rivals. Worshipping other gods, having sex with foreign women and deviating from rituals prescribed in the Law, not oppressing the poor, are by far the greatest sin an Israelite can commit. The Torah is pervaded by a polemical, militant spirit directed against religious dissenters. (Deut. 31: 17 is but one of numerous examples). Therefore, even the Torah’s positive messages are packaged and delivered in hyper-authoritarian spirit.
God demands total obedience from his Chosen People (Deut. 5: 29-30) and when he does not get it, He rules by threats of violence and actual violence. Yet despite divine massacres, plagues and earthquakes of “Biblical proportions” the Israelites remain a “stiff-necked people.” By humanistic standards, this would be a compliment, because it signifies a refusal to submit to tyranny, but in the Torah, this is considered outrageous behavior. (Deut. 31:27)
Take the following example: In Numbers 13-14, eight out of ten Israelite scouts sent into the Land of Israel to assess the chances for a successful invasion return with a pessimistic report. A powerful people already occupy the land, they say. This news demoralizes the Israelites. They talk about returning to Egypt and throw stones at Moses and Aaron. God kills the ten scouts. This has the desired effect of making the Israelites more compliant. Now they agree to launch the invasion. But Moses orders them to stay put, because God is still angry with them. They attack anyway, and since God refuses to help them, they suffer a serious defeat. Damned if you don’t and damned if you do.
On top of this, God inflicts collective punishment. Everyone over 20 years old is sentenced to die in the desert, except for the two loyal scouts. Even the children, who clearly were not responsible for the unrest, will have to wander in the desert for 40 years before they get to enter the Promised Land. “Thus you shall know what it means to thwart Me.” (Num. 14: 34)
But it could have been worse. God’s original reaction to the Israelites’ disloyalty was to wipe out everybody and start over. (Num. 14:12) In fact, this is God’s modus operandi. He threatened to exterminate the Israelites once before (Ex. 33:3-5) and actually began to do sot in response to another challenge to His authority (Num. 17: 8-14), killing 14,700 people, before Moses and Aaron convinced him to relent. Another God-inflicted massacre of Israelites was stayed when the death toll reached 24,000, only because an Israelite fanatic appeased God by impaling a fellow Israelite and his non-Jewish lover. (Num. 25: 1-13) Korah and his followers are swallowed by an earthquake or burnt to a crisp for challenging Moses’ and Aaron’s autocracy. (Num. 16) This is only a sampling. For more blood purges, see Ex. 32: 35. Num.11: 1-2, 11: 31-34, 14: 44-45.
Moses frequently displays great courage in confronting God and skillfully allaying His wrath. The way he does it tells us something about God’s personality in the Torah. Moses convinces God that if He kills the Israelites in the desert that would give the Egyptians the last laugh and make Him appear ineffectual in the eyes on other nations. (Ex. 32: 12-13, Num. 14: 13-17). This is egoism run amuck.
Moses’ confrontations with God are among the earliest examples of a Jewish tradition to speak truth to power, so highly prized by secular and humanistic Jews. But only someone with the stature of an Abraham or a Moses can get away with it. Otherwise, dissenters are not tolerated. “Do not hinder the execution of a false prophet.” (Deut. 18:22) is just another way of saying that people simply have no right to think for themselves.
Moses himself is far from blameless. He also has blood on his hands, having ordered two gruesome massacres in Exodus 32: 25-29 and Numbers 31: 1-18 to suppress unrest among the Israelites. However this that is not why God refuses to allow him to enter the Promised Land. After shlepping the Israelites around in the desert for 40 years, Moses’ offense is that he disobeys God by extracting water from a rock by striking it, rather than by talking to it. Hard to believe? See Numbers 20: 8-12. This punishment is especially galling because in a previous instance (Ex. 17: 6) striking a rock to produce water is exactly what God ordered Moses to do.
At the end of the day, the Torah, through the voice of Moses, makes its moral posture painfully clear. (Deuteronomy 28: 15-60) “....if you do not obey the Lord your God and observe faithfully all His commandments and laws, all these curses shall come upon you and take effect:
The Lord will loose against you calamity, panic and frustration in all the enterprises you undertake, so that you shall soon be utterly wiped out because of your evildoing in forsaking Me. The Lord will make pestilence cling to you…will strike you with consumption, fever and inflammation, with scorching head and drought, with blight and mildew, they shall hound you until you perish...Your carcasses shall become food for all the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth…The Lord will strike you with madness, blindness and dismay...You will be constantly abused and robbed, with none to give help…you will be abused and downtrodden constantly until you are driven mad. Because you would not serve the Lord they God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything, you shall have to serve in hunger and in thirst, naked and lacking everything. He will put an iron yoke upon neck until He has wiped you out.
The Lord will bring a nation against you… a ruthless nation that will show the old no regard and the young no mercy. It shall devour your cattle and produce until you are wiped out. It shall shut you up in all your towns… and when you shut up in all your towns, you shall eat your own issue, the flesh of your sons and daughters…”
Similar blood-curdling tirades appears in (Lev. 26: 14-38, Deut. 32:19-25), not even sparing the infant and the aged.
Once Israelites take possession of the Land of Israel, they are instructed to appoint leaders who will govern justly (Deut. 16: 18-20). God allows them to choose whether to establish a monarchy, only one that is constrained by the laws of the Torah, as interpreted by the priests (Deut. 17: 14-15, 18-20) “thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction….” In a commandment virtually forgotten today, the king is forbidden to accumulate too much wealth. (Deut 17:17).
But what does that noble phrase “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deut. 16: 20) mean in practice? The next few chapters and verses tell the story. Anyone who worships other gods must be stoned to death, (Deut. 17:2-5) and no pity must be shown to any lawbreakers. (Deut. 19:21) Legal authority will reside with the Levites, a hereditary priesthood whose authority may not be questioned on pain of death. “All the people will hear and be afraid and not act presumptuously again.” (Deut. 17: 12-13)
Is there a process for changing the law? Or is Jewish law really written in stone, like the Ten Commandments? Although we all know that in the real world, Jews began interpreting the Torah the minute it was written, the Torah actually forbids any deviations. (Ex. 23: 21-22, Deut. 13: 1. 28: 14) “Be careful then and do as the Lord your God has commanded you. Do not turn aside to the right or the left, follow only the path that the Lord your God has enjoined you…”(Deut. 5: 29-30) These principles are hardly compatible with the democratic freedoms and the right to self-government we have come to cherish, but they are indeed central to the message of the Torah.
FREE WILL What about free will? The enslavement of the Israelites and their liberation are all pre-ordained. (Gen. 15: 13-14) After the fifth plague, Pharoah repeatedly tries to surrender, but God purposely “hardens his heart” to make it crystal clear who is boss. (Ex. 4: 21, 7:3, 9: 12, 10: 1-3, 11:10, 20, 27,) The rest of the plagues are meant to impress the unbelievers with God’s might. This cat and mouse game continues even as God compels Pharoah to send his army after the fleeing Israelites (Ex. 14: 4, 8) and pursue them to its doom in the Red Sea. (Ex. 14: 17) As Jonathan Kirsch, a respected author, comments in Moses: A Life, “The crowning irony…is that the theology of the Ten Plagues denies the very theme that is regarded as the shining moral example of the Exodus---the theme of the liberation. If God determines exactly how a human being will act and react, then there is no place for free will and no real freedom at all.”
Free will makes a fleeting appearance in a poetic passage in which Moses declares, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live---by loving the Lord [and] heeding His commands...” (Deut. 30: 19-20). But this lofty pronouncement is enforced by the same old fear tactics (Deut. 30: 17-18): threats of annihilation. Moses even predicts that after his death, no sooner than the Israelites settle in the Promised Land, they will once again “turn to other gods (Deut 31: 20) ...act wickedly…” (i.e. relapse into pagan practices) and incur the wrath of God. (Deut. 31: 29). And of course, his prediction comes true and the cycle of sin and retribution continues.
MORALITY IN THE TALMUD In sum, the Torah’s moral teachings are, at best, a mixed bag--fairly wretched when it comes to family relations, horrible vis-a-vis foreigners and women, much better as to the resident alien, harsh but egalitarian in its legal code, decent on personal ethics among Jews, strong on social justice and abysmal in its methods of persuasion and governance.
One could truthfully argue that rabbinic Judaism rests more on the Talmud, but outside of a handful of Yeshiva students, it is not widely studied. In fact, the Talmud is practically invisible in mainstream synagogue life. Only the Orthodox study it conscientiously. The Torah, although completely anachronistic, remains the center of Jewish liturgy and ceremony.
The Talmud’s moral teachings, as expressed in the Law or halakha are also ambiguous. They are superior to the Torah with respect to family relations, personal ethics and the legal system. The Talmud’s prescribed methods of governance are relatively enlightened. Persuasion is valued over force, as God takes a back seat to human interpretation. However the Talmud leaves much to be desired in other areas. Rituals govern every aspect of a male Jew’s life. It is more ethnocentric and sexist, and less concerned with social justice than the Torah.
For example, whereas the Torah gives a mixed impression of Esau, in the Talmud he is pure evil—the original violent anti-Semite. According to a rabbinic interpretation, Esau, upon embracing his brother Jacob after 20 years apart, was actually frisking him to see what he could steal. Women fare even worse—there are a grand total two in the entire Talmud that receive honorable mention. All other depictions are negative—including those who receive more favorable treatment in the Bible. In another Vashti, the non-Jewish queen who refuses to dance naked for King Ashvereus in the Book of Esther, is depicted as Esther’s tormentor. Saying anything nice about a shiksa was impossible for the Talmudic rabbis, who considered them the equivalent of prostitutes.
The rabbis also interpreted the Torah’s mandate to “Love your neighbor as yourself” to apply to Jews only and made numerous derogatory references to non-Jews. The oft quoted phrase that “saving one life is like saving all humanity” is limited to Jews in most editions. (See Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 and Talmud Sanhedrin 37a). Although minority opinions were respected among rabbis, the opinions of those defined as heretics (“minim” or “apikorsim”) were suppressed. (Maimonides, generally considered the greatest Jewish philosopher, held views that were just as hostile to non-Jews. For example, he considered Christians to be idol worshippers and therefore unworthy of respect. He lived centuries after the Talmud was written, but I mention him to show that such inhumane attitudes did not necessarily “mellow” with time.) They only began to change with the Haskalah or Jewish Enlightenment in the late 18th century when they were at first widely disseminated by Reform and Secular Jews. Furthermore, the Talmud is written in a style that makes it nearly inaccessible, because it devotes inordinate attention to the most trivial matters and features convoluted arguments that appear to have to no beginning or end. Any text that has to be studied day and night to be understood is not worth studying. Just a few pages of Talmud are enough to glaze the eyes of the educated reader. Secular Jews simply have more important things to do with our lives than pour over obscure texts to tease out a few gems. What is most valuable in the Talmud, from a secular humanist Jewish perspective, are its folktales (Agada) and they exist in separate collections, most notably The Book of Legends edited by the famous poet Chaim Bialik and Yehoshua Ravnitsky.
But the Talmud has a saving grace. Pirkey Avot (Sayings of the Fathers), a short tractate of the Mishna, is the best exposition of moral values in traditional Jewish literature. It is here that we find Hillel’s famous encapsulation of the golden rule, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow,” and Rabbi Tarfon’s adage, “It is not your obligation to complete the task [of perfecting the world], but neither are you free to desist [from doing your part.]. Rabbi Shemaiah admonishes “Love work, hate power and do not try to be on intimate terms with those who rule.” Hillel reminds us that “In a place where there are no men (sic), you strive be a man.” And Simeon ben Gamaliel sums up quite nicely with these words: “The world rests on three foundations: truth, justice and peace.” There are close-minded sayings as well, but each one stands on its own merits. Let us hope that these essentially humanistic principles, which are NOT enforced by fear of divine reprisal, remain central to our identity as Jews.
CONCLUSION One can, of course, pick and choose which moral precepts from the Torah to follow. How many of us care that the Torah bans cross-dressing (Deut. 22:5) and wearing blended fabrics (Deut. 22: 11)? On the other hand “Do not oppress the stranger,” although severely compromised in the text, is a worthy ideal. But if there is so much that is either morally objectionable or irrelevant in the Torah, why sanctify it, as all religious Jews do from the ultra-orthodox to Reconstructionist? If we reject authoritarianism and ethnocentrism in our worldview, why worship five books that are rife them? “Tradition” is not a sufficient answer. As Mordecai Kaplan said, it has a vote, but not a veto.
Morality comes from many sources, primarily from practical experience. It is neither eternal, nor dependent on belief in a deity. As Albert Einstein put it, "A man's [sic] ethical behavior should be based effectively on sympathy, education and social ties and needs. No religious basis is necessary. "
A moral code should not be embraced unless it is based on universal human equality and a free exchange of ideas. The Torah’s morality, predicated on absolute obedience to God and the elevation of Israelites to privileged, i.e. "chosen" status, fails this test. It is no accident that only the religious right advocates the posting of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms. Ultimately, the Torah is the raw material for Christian and Jewish religious fundamentalism. May the day come when the Torah is retired to the library where it belongs, and Jews spent as much time, if not more, deriving inspiration from other Jewish literature. For starters, we can look to the Biblical books of Ruth, Jonah, Job, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, whose humanistic themes (existential, in the case of Ecclesiastes) prove that our roots, as secular humanistic Jews, go back to our ancient literature. I already touted the virtues of Pirkey Avot. Jewish folklore, from the Agada in the Talmud and the Midrash to Hasidic and other Jewish sources, is also a fertile source of pre-modern Jewish humanism. Once we get to the modern era, of course, this kind of literature is abundant, and I believe its finest expressions can be found in Yiddish literature, and secondarily among Jewish writers of diverse cultures and languages imbued with the spirit of progressive Jewish humanism.