My phone buzzed with another Facebook notification. A friend had added me to a group for Jews committed to creating a more just world. Scrolling through the group’s virtual wall, I noted invitations to various awareness-raising events, all-calls for volunteers at homeless shelters, and notes from the last City Council meeting. Just a few decades ago, there was no Facebook or smartphones. Grassroots activism was fomented through in-person conversations and copy machines. DIY newsletters, ‘zines, and t-shirts at one time predominated. Not so long ago, our world looked considerably different.
Through evolving technology, demographics, politics and revolutions of all kinds, there have always been Jews and we’ve always been interested in justice. In fact, this week’s parshah reads like a penal code, listing offenses and their respective punishments. Among them, “When a man schemes against another and kills him treacherously, you take him from My very altar to be put to death. He who strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death. He who kidnaps a man – whether he has sold him or is still holding him – shall be put to death. He who insults his father or his mother shall be put to death” (Exodus 21:14-17). Death appears as punishment frequently throughout the Torah. Sometimes the proscribed death seems reasonable by modern day standards – after all, 32 states still implement the death penalty. But, by my own 21st century frame of reference, death for simply insulting my parents seems egregious.
There’s goodness written into this code, as well. “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan,” appears several lines above “You must not carry false rumors; you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness: You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong – you shall not give a perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty – nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute.” The rights of all people are preserved. “You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes. Keep far from a false charge; do not bring death on those who are innocent and in the right, for I will not acquit the wrongdoer. Do not take bribes, for bribes blind the clear-sighted and upset the pleas of those who are in the right.” These sentiments from millennia before us are echoed in the justice systems of numerous democracies around the globe today.
Justice, compassion, and empathy flow though our Torah. So, too, do the harsh realities of life in the ancient Near East. For our holy text to remain accessible, we must be honest with ourselves about that which is worth embracing and that which must be discarded as no longer relevant. We cannot simply condemn the entirety of the Torah for “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Exodus 21:24-25). Nor can we accept such a standard simply because it appears in the same parshah as, “When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him” (Exodus 23:5).
Our Hebrew ancestors faced a much different reality than any of us know today. There were no endangered species or concerns around climate change. No factory farms or genetically modified organisms. No vaccines, drone technology, or sweatshops. They worshipped our God through animal and agricultural sacrifices at one temple. They sometimes sold their daughters as slaves. We were a different people, immersed in a much different culture, at a vastly different time in history. As our world evolved, so did we.
Evolution is necessary. We moved from Temple Judaism into Rabbinic Judaism and from there flowed the Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal and Humanist movements. All of these denominations continue to grow and change. We must evolve as our world evolves. Such change is critical for its repair. If we, a people so intrinsically committed to justice, are to work towards a better world, we must be armed with the information and resources to meet the most pressing issues of the day head on. The Torah can be such a resource. It holds lights of truth for us still. We must simply be discerning in how we use the illumination.