Fulfilling the Commandments
Piety and morality diverged once again recently when Rabbi Hertz Frankel, the English studies principal of Beth Rachel (the network of Satmar girls’ schools in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg), pleaded guilty to embezzling more than six million dollars of public funds over nearly two decades for the welfare of his employer. Despite a light sentence –– three years of unsupervised probation and a fine of one million dollars on Beth Rachel –– Rabbi Frankel was unrepentant. “The end justifies the means,” he told the New York Times, which I take to mean that he believed the Jewish children in his care were more deserving of the money than the non–Jewish children, no less impoverished and deprived, who lived in his school district.
The case will surely inflame ethnic tensions in a crowded neighborhood. But that is not why I raise it. I am more concerned about the failure of meticulous Jewish observance to stem egregious public behavior. Non–observant Jews commit their share of white–collar crimes. But then, sincere religious practice is missing in their lives to temper their greed. How do we explain the appearance of sin in a life absorbed with the pursuit of holiness? Is there perhaps something inherent in Judaism itself that predisposes one to the kind of crime which Rabbi Frankel committed?
Certainly not at first glance. According to one prevalent view in rabbinic literature, the very purpose of Judaism’s elaborate behavioral code is to bring our passions under control. No amount of study will illuminate the specific value of each and every commandment. In truth, God is not in the details, whether we slaughter an animal one way or another for example, but in their cumulative effect. To enhance our humanity through a regimen of self–discipline, a system of lifelong character formation –– that is the Torah’s lofty goal (B’reishit Rabba 44:1).
Thus, the more mitzvot the better. Constant spiritual exercise should yield a moral exemplar. “Israel is particularly beloved,” says the Talmud, “because God enclosed them with mitzvot; tefillin on their heads and arms, fringes [tzizit] on their clothes and a mezuzah on their doorposts (B.T. Menahot43b).” In the same context, the Talmud brings the view of Rabbi Meir that a Jew ought to offer God at least one hundred blessings each day. The chosenness of Israel expresses itself in the proliferation of acts of self–transcendence.
However, there is an underside to this sense of chosenness, and that is a tendency to dichotomize the world between “them” and “us.” Categories of people are set apart by the fact that God has assigned them far fewer mitzvot to keep. Hence, three of those one hundred blessings to be recited daily –– fourteen of which lead off our morning prayers ––praise God for “not having made me a gentile,” “for not having made me a woman” and “for not having made me a slave (Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Tefilla7:6).” The negative formulation, though, is unfortunate. No matter what the original intent, specialness can easily slip into denigration of the other, chosenness into contempt. And for this reason, the siddurim of the Conservative movement long ago formulated each of these blessings positively. We need not define our identity over against any other group, especially non–Jews.
Sadly, a low estimate of non–Jews pervades much of rabbinic literature. For instance, the Mishna admonishes Jews not to leave their animals unattended at the inn of a gentile, because gentiles are suspected of engaging in bestiality. They are also liable to rape and murder, which is why a lonely Jewish male or female should avoid their company (Mishna Avoda Zara 2:1). Elsewhere the Mishna implies that the sanctity of Shabbat is not to be violated to rescue a gentile (Mishna Yoma 8:7).
The same xenophobia contaminated one of the finest expressions of universalism in the Mishna. Prior to testifying in a capital case, witnesses are warned of the consequences of their words. “Humanity began,” they are told, “with the creation of a single human being, to teach that anyone who saves a single person is credited with having saved the entire human race” and, conversely, if one destroys a single life (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:4). While this seems to have been the original language of our passage, some manuscripts and many printed versions substituted for the word “person” the word “Jew,” effecting thereby a profound contraction of spirit. Adam was hardly Jewish.
These and other specimens have provided a field day for anti–Semites throughout the ages. It matters little whether such constricted sentiments are the product of a siege mentality in the wake of Palestinian Jewry’s failed rebellions against Rome or in fact reflect the low moral standards of its diverse neighbors. As long as they are not historicized and relativized, as they indeed were by medieval halakhic authorities, they tend to remain authoritative, especially for Jews with a fundamentalist bent. Unfortunately, the violence to which Jews were all too often subjected as a helpless minority in a hostile society confirmed and reinforced the suspicion voiced by their sacred texts. And indeed, Rabbi Frankel is a survivor who lost most of his family in the Holocaust.
In consequence, treatment of the “other” still represents a problem for Judaism. Passages abound in our sacred texts that denigrate the non–Jew and lead to the adoption of a double standard. In a divided world, we are entitled to take whatever measures will advance our own narrow interests. And it is such a world, in which holiness and hatred are intertwined, that Rabbi Frankel inhabits.
But our sacred texts do not speak with a single voice. They are gloriously multivocal. On the subject of the “other,” noble ideals, untarnished by history, are also in abundance. This week’s parasha closes with a noteworthy example yet to be fully realized in our own sovereign Jewish state: “You should have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I the Lord am your God (Leviticus 24:22).” For the Rabbis, the resident alien was obliged to observe only the seven laws of No·ah. Nevertheless, Rashi, who died in 1105 shortly after the first Crusade, saw fit to comment on the final phrase of our parasha [“for I the Lord am your God”], “the Lord of all of you.” That is, “just as I confer My name on you, I confer My name on the resident aliens.” No matter how grief–stricken, Rashi did not let the bitter reality of his own era erode the inclusive spirit of the Torah.
Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,