The ethics of the Torah "“ the ethics of God

The ethics of the Torah "“ the ethics of God

And if you will see among the captives a woman who is beautiful, you will take her to yourself for a wife” (Deuteronomy 21:11). In his commentary Sefer Ha-Zikkaron, on Rashi, Rabbi Abraham Levy-Bacrat (expelled from Spain in 1492) wrote, “Don’t think that the Torah is giving you an affirmative commandment or even permission to do something right and good. Rather, this is addressed to your evil conscience that is enticing you to do something that is wrong.”

Rabbi Bacrat understood that the taking of a woman in the heat of battle was something that could hardly be stopped. In order to protect this most vulnerable woman, the soldier is forbidden from torturing her or treating her as a slave. Rather, the man is commanded to take her as a wife.

Given the reality of human existence and the intensity of war, the Torah chose to legalize and legislate a less-than-optimal situation, rather than attempt a blanket prohibition that would not be followed. In its time, the Torah was very advanced. In most ancient wars, women were treated as chattel and could be bought and sold as slaves. Typically, they were not accepted back into their familial tribe after having been taken captive. The sensitivity that the Torah demands is unparalleled in the Ancient Near East.

But I have a problem. I believe that God wrote the Torah and that God is perfect. And though by the ethical standards of 3,000 years ago the Torah is doing quite well, that is not the case when based on the ethics of the 21st century. The beautiful captive woman challenges my core beliefs about the nature of the Torah and of God.

Rambam deals with this problem through the assertion that the Torah was revealed in a certain generation. The mitzvot presented in the Torah had to be meaningful to the people who (physically) stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai. For this reason, there are some portions that Rambam claims were a concession to a nation that had been steeped in the idolatry of Egypt.

Rav Kook takes this a step further and tries to argue that, in fact, certain ethical principles can change or develop over time. He is careful to emphasize that this can happen only under certain circumstances (see “Iggerot Hareayah” 1:130). For Rav Kook, the voice of Mt. Sinai continues to echo through the heartfelt ethical beliefs of Klal Yisrael (the Jewish people).

We are living in a time in which Jewish ethics are often under attack. Our role as a people is to remain counter-cultural and offer a critique of the surrounding society. In some circumstances, the Orthodox community needs to be able to incorporate the vision of Rambam and Rav Kook.

The treatment of workers in a kosher meat packing plant is, I believe, one of those areas. While it would be unfair to label meat not kosher because of the working conditions of the plant, I think it would be wise to demand the highest standards from those people who are producing our kosher meat. I am not in a position to offer a systemic solution to the problem – only the major kashrut organizations can do so. This is a chumra that our community cannot afford to ignore.

We have already begun to blast the shofar in shul for the month of Elul. This is a time when each of us, as individuals as well as a community, must look in the mirror and ask if we are doing the best that we can. I hope that the community of people for whom kashrut is important will ask that same question of the companies producing our kosher meat.