The brightest light by far

The brightest light by far

I know many readers think I am the kvetch who stole Chanukah.

I do not dislike Chanukah. I am not even very bothered by its Christmasization. Sure, I wish that at least as many Jews as celebrate Chanukah also celebrate Shavuot, but anything that fosters a sense of observance in Jews is welcome.

What troubles me is not what we are doing to Chanukah, but why we are doing it. In emulating the Other, there is the suggestion that too many of us are uncomfortable with Judaism; that Judaism is primitive, backward, anachronistic, out of touch with enlightened modern thought. It is as if we have lost a sense of pride in Judaism and its place in our lives.

We have to polish up this distorted image of Judaism, and see it for what it really is, and always has been: a way of life based on the Torah, whose laws were – and continue to be – the most positive force for good in this world.

As Americans, we take pride in the words “all men are created equal,” but we ignore the fact that when these words were written, the “men” meant white men, period, and for most of the 18th century it meant white Christian men. Women, obviously, were not men, so they did not count, and neither did anyone whose skin was not white.

Things are a lot better today, but women still are not treated equally (certainly not where salaries are concerned, or even job opportunities), and there still is a great deal of discrimination against minorities.

Money talks in America and everywhere else. When a rich person goes up against a poor person in a dispute, the overwhelming advantage is to the rich person. When a rich person goes on trial for some offense, he or she will fare much better than a poor person will. Justice, sad to say, is class-conscious.

It was much worse in the world in which the Torah came to be. In that world, class distinction was built into the law.

The opposite was built into the Torah. “You shall not render an unfair decision,” it says (Leviticus 19:15); “do not favor the poor or show deference for the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.”

In Deuteronomy 1:17, it says, “You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out low and high alike.”

It has the harshest words for anyone “who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow” (Deuteronomy 27:19), the Torah’s way of defining society’s disadvantaged and the disenfranchised. This adjuration is emphasized in the Torah in a variety of forms, making it a “prime directive,” so to speak.

Not even the king (or president) is above the law, or even above his peers, which included everyone. He also had to use his position for the betterment of society without enriching himself. (See Deuteronomy 17:14-20.)

You will not find such laws in ancient Greece, the putative birthplace of democracy, or in ancient Rome. The laws in both distinguished between highborn and low, and between citizen and stranger. Only in Israel are such laws found in that world. True, as our prophets kept complaining, Israel’s leaders did not always practice what the Torah preached; power corrupts. At least there was an ideal to strive for in Israel that did not exist anywhere else in that world – and still does not.

Is this what we consider backward? Is this what we find so awkward and uncomfortable that we need to adopt the ways of the Other?

In my July 4th column, I noted that the Torah, more than any document that came from Greece or elsewhere, influenced American democracy. It was “nothing short of the underlying fabric upon which American society was founded,” according to the religion scholar Dr. John Woodland Welch. “[T]he profound influence of biblical law on early American colonial law is obvious to those who have studied seventeenth century law in America….[It] was not a passing fancy in colonial America.”

There are many examples, such as the “Capitall Lawes of New England,” promulgated by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1641, which also demonstrated the influence of the Talmud.

In 1655, the New Haven colony’s legislators built this into their code: “[T]he judicial laws of God, as they were delivered by Moses, and as they are a fence to the moral law…, [shall] generally bind all offenders, till they be branched out into particulars hereafter.” New Haven’s Code of 1655 contained 79 statutes, 38 of which came from the Bible (and an overwhelming majority of those came from the Torah).

In the courtroom, Torah law zealously guards the rights of the defendant. There is trial by jury; the right to confront witnesses; protection against self-incrimination; the right of appeal. (See Deuteronomy 17:8-10.)

The Torah protects the rights of the laborer (Leviticus 19:10 commands that he be paid on time; the Shabbat commandment entitles him and everyone else to one day off each week), and an individual’s right to privacy (see Deuteronomy 24:10).

The Torah’s disdain for slavery is seen in its laws regarding slaves.

Deuteronomy 23:16 forbids returning runaway slaves to their masters (contrast this to the Dred Scott decision). If a master kills a slave, the slave “must be avenged,” says Exodus 21:20; in verses 26 and 27, it frees a slave if the master causes physical damage to him or her.

Exodus 21:22 and the talmudic legislation that derives from it gives women power over their own bodies. We are still fighting about this in the America of the 21st Century.

Based on Torah legislation, Judaism created one of the most forward-looking sets of environmental and ecological protection laws, including one that forbids burning fossil fuels with abandon (see the Babylonian Talmud tractate Shabbat 67b), and one that practically demands recycling (the principle of Bal Tashchit, “do not destroy,” that derives from Deuteronomy 20:19.

Enjoy the rest of Chanukah. And take pride in the Torah whose light continues to shine brightly because of it.