Parashat Re’eh 5779

There Never Was an Idolatrous City
A D’var Torah for Parashat Re’eh
By Rabbi Len Levin

“See, this day I set before you blessing and curse.” (Deut. 11:26)

“I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life!” (Deut. 30:19)

It should be so simple. But life is rarely that simple.

The extreme of evil, which the Torah bids us shun, is idolatry (Deut. 13:2–19). What is idolatry? In rabbinic literature, idolatry is often equated with kafar ba-ikar —forsaking the fundamental principle of Judaism. In modern parlance, we have other ways of expressing supreme condemnation. “Disloyalty,” “treason,” and “self-hating Jew” come to mind. They carry the same valence of scorn, ostracism, and exclusion as “idolatry” in ancient discourse. Each is used implicitly to condemn an opponent as violating the fundamental principle of Judaism.

But there is more than one fundamental principle of Judaism.

In the Pesah Haggadah, we are told that the wicked child has dissociated himself from the Jewish people and thereby kafar ba-ikar — has violated the fundamental principle. (Haggadah, Magid, The Four Sons) It is easy to deduce the logic of this comment. There is no Judaism without solidarity of the Jewish people. Especially after millennia of persecution culminating in the Holocaust, it is essential to affirm the right of survival of the Jewish people and to stand firm against any expression of anti-Semitism. Whoever denies this would not have been deserving of liberation from Egyptian slavery.

But another fundamental principle of Judaism is solidarity with all humanity. Rabbi Akiva found the klal gadol, the first principle of the Torah, in “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”(Lev. 19:18) Simeon ben Azzai found it in: “This is the book of the generations of Adam: When God made man, He made him in the likeness of God.” (Gen. 5:1) (Sifra Kedoshim 4) From this principle we derive: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 23:9)

It should be so simple to reconcile these principles: affirm the solidarity of the Jewish people, and also love the stranger. Is not Judaism an interweave of particularist and universalist values? Is not each essential to the integrity of the whole?

But what if the party defending the stranger includes prominent political opponents of Israel, who have occasionally expressed themselves in the language of anti-Semitism? And what if the party posing as the most powerful friend of Israel is also an oppressor of the stranger?

In his book The Boundaries of Judaism, Donniel Hartman develops a conceptual framework of pluralism and boundaries. Each of us stands in the center of an array of concentric circles. At the center are those with whom we are in complete agreement. As we move away from the center we encounter successive zones of legitimate disagreement. At the periphery we encounter those we label as “deviants.” Within the deviant category itself we distinguish between “tolerable deviants” whom we include within our circle and “intolerable deviants” whom we relegate to the outside.

Confronted with the dilemma we have described, there are two main parties among today’s Jews. One party has chosen the survival of Jewish peoplehood as the preeminent value and has accepted the self-styled champion of Israel as a true friend, acknowledging his other faults in the category of “tolerated deviance,” while consigning the defenders of the stranger who are guilty of anti-Semitic pronouncements as “intolerable deviants.”

The other party has made the reverse choice: placing Judaism’s universal values as preeminent, accepting the flawed spokespersons of the stranger as “tolerated deviants” while regarding the self-styled champion of Israel as an “intolerable deviant.”

Neither has chosen perfection. Each has chosen one of the several values of Judaism as primary, while tolerating imperfection with respect to other Jewish values.

Shall the one party, holding the preeminence of Jewish survival, regard the other party as idolatrous or traitors, because they include among their political allies some who are proponents of the Palestinian cause and have criticized Israel? Or shall the other party, holding the preeminence of universal social values, regard the first party as idolatrous because they ally themselves with one who has sometimes championed Israel’s interests but has far from a perfect score in complying with other Jewish values such as embracing the stranger?

Fully anathematizing an individual or group can have grave consequences. Our Torah portion prescribes that if an entire city is guilty of idolatry, that city should be razed to the ground and all its inhabitants be put to death (Deut. 13:13–19). But our rabbis placed insurmountable obstacles to carrying out these penalties. To start, the judgment on such a case would have to be decided by a Sanhedrin of 71 judges. Many other difficult technical objections would have to be met as well. In the end, the Talmud concludes: “There never was, nor will there ever be, an idolatrous city. Why, then, was the law for it written in the Torah? So that you may learn it and receive your reward” (Sanhedrin 71a).

We each must act by the light of what is right as God has given us to see that right. At the same time, we should be very cautious about casting aspersions on our fellow-Jews who see things differently and have come to different conclusions about what Jewish values bid us to do in the present situation.

None was more zealous for God’s honor than the prophet Elijah. After standing up to the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel, he fled to Horeb and poured out his heart to God: “I have been very zealous for the Lord, for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life.” (I Kings 19:10) God corrected him, saying that there remained seven thousand who had not knelt to Baal. (19:18) At the same time, God instructed Elijah to appoint Elisha as his successor. Why? The rabbis suggest: Elijah showed great respect for God, but too little respect for the Jewish people, whereupon God told him:Ee ifshi binevuatekha — “I no longer want you to serve as my prophet.” (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Ishmael 12:1)

As we fight for God’s honor, let us not impugn the honor of our fellow-Jews.
Rabbi Len Levin teaches Jewish philosophy at AJR. He is the editor of Studies in Judaism and Pluralism.