2018-05-09 / Religion Column

How do we as Jews deal with the Torah’s troubling passages?

Lions Gate Rabbi Emeritus

Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, commemorates the giving of the Torah, specifically, the Decalogue. For many, the Decalogue represents what it means to be a good person. People often say that even though they may not be religious, the Ten Commandments guide their lives. For Jews, this is only a starting place. In our tradition, the Decalogue is not the full expression of Jewish spiritual life and moral teaching, but an outline of Jewish concerns.

The Two Tablets of the Law are powerful markers of Jewish presence. Often they stand above the Aron Kodesh reminding us that the Torah scrolls stored within contain the words first heard by our people at Sinai and transmitted over time through a process of discussion and debate. They remind us of God’s unity, the transformative experience of the Exodus, the sacredness of family and the choices we need to make to live in peace with our neighbors.

Yet the Fourth Commandment, the commandment designating the Seventh Day, the Shabbat, as a day of rest for all members of our community, presents a description of that community that fundamentally differs from our vision of Jewish community. The commandment to observe the Shabbat was first heard in a society in which women and children were subordinate to men and, even more disturbing, that accepted slavery as a norm. Even though Torah law and subsequent Jewish legislation seek to protect slaves from abusive situations, the fact that in the Decalogue slavery appears as a societal institution just as marriage, family, property, and government is inescapable.

The Decalogue is a summary of the Torah, pointing us to many of the significant concerns that will be taken up in the rest of scripture and discussed by Jews throughout the generations. The ways in which we understand basic social structures— marriage, family, property, government—has changed over the centuries, but the wisdom first expressed in Torah still enriches our understanding of them.

Slavery is different. No responsible Jewish thinker today would attempt to justify slavery on Biblical or other grounds. As Jews, a people, more likely to be slaves than to own slaves, and in light of the history of slavery in America, the claim that the core text of God’s revelation, the Decalogue, was concerned only with the welfare of slaves is, at best, historically interesting. The fact that apologists for slavery, among them Jews, used this passage to justify slavery is profoundly disturbing. From our contemporary perspective, it is clear that slavery is prohibited by Torah.

Yet, we cannot excise the uncomfortable verses from the Torah nor insert a new commandment: “Thou shalt not enslave another person” into the Decalogue. However, when faced with troubling passages, our tradition calls us to find deeper meanings that overrule a simple reading of the text. Jews read the Torah as a self-critical and self-correcting text.

The understanding that all are free is implicit in the Decalogue. The reasons given for observing Shabbat undercut its apparent acceptance of slavery. If the Shabbat commemorates God’s liberation of the Jews from Egyptian bondage (Deuteronomy 5:15), how can we re-enslave someone already freed by God? If the Shabbat memorializes God’s creation of a world designed for those created in God’s likeness (Exodus 20:11), how can we honor God while holding someone who bears God’s image in bondage?

As Jews, we do not read the Torah literally. It has always been an interpreted text. It contains eternal truths embedded in specific human contexts. While we cannot rewrite scripture, we are always rereading it; finding new passages to cherish and setting aside older choices, which now seem to blind us to the Torah’s higher and deeper truths, including the truth that God created all people to be free. 

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