Parashat Ki Teitzei 5780

A D’var Torah for Parashat Ki Teitzei
By Rabbi Matthew Goldstone

The topics of racism and racial justice have been on many of our minds over the past several months. One particular issue that I have been thinking about is that while many of us might decry racism, we may nevertheless unwittingly be participants in perpetuating policies and practices that reinforce racial inequality. We are not alone in this, nor is it a purely modern phenomenon. Already in the Torah we find judgmental assumptions based upon ancestry rather than individuality.

Our parasha this week delineates several categories of people who are not permitted to enter into the congregation of the Israelites, including the Ammonites and the Moabites. Anyone belonging to these groups is automatically labelled as unacceptable because their ancestors “did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt and because they hired Balaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Aram-naharim, to curse you” (Deut. 23:5). Descendants of the Ammonites and Moabites are not alone in being punished for the deeds of their ancestors, the Amalekites are similarly eternally marked because during the Exodus the Amalekites “surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear” (Deut. 25:18). Even if descendants did nothing wrong themselves, they are marred by the acts of those who came before them and the ethnic group to which they belong. Ethnic identity rather than individual action becomes the basis for denying access.

Ethnicity is not the only factor that creates an intergenerational barrier to joining the Israelite community. Illicit sexual relationships resulting in the birth of a mamzer also has this effect – “No one misbegotten (ממזר) shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord; none of his descendants, even in the tenth generation” (Deut. 23:3). The child of a couple that should never have been together is genetically tainted for all time. These laws that condemn a person because of their parentage are not merely ancillary. The Ten Commandments themselves contain a blatant statement that ancestry directly impacts not only how we treat one another, but how God treats people: “I the Lord your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me” (Exod. 20:8 and Deut. 5:9). Lest one think that God’s impassioned nature is merely fleeting, this notion is reiterated again in the famous statement of the Thirteen Attributes of God: “God does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations” (Exod. 34:7). God judges people based upon the deeds of their ancestors and the ethnic group to which they belong. If even God does this, then perhaps we can admit that “everyone’s a little bit racist.”

Despite promulgating several laws that reinforce discrimination based on ancestry, our parasha also rejects vicarious punishment: “Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents: a person shall be put to death only for their own crime” (Deut. 24:16). There is an obvious contradiction in our parasha between the laws that assert discriminatory action based upon the misdeeds of one’s ancestors and the rejection of punishing a person for something they themselves had no hand in committing. This inconsistency is not lost on the Talmud, which brings two of these verses against one another in the context of a discussion about theodicy: “Is it not written, ‘[God] visits the iniquity of parents upon children’ and it is written, ‘children shall not be put to death for parents’? These verses are cast against one another and we teach: This is not a difficulty, this [in the case of intergenerational punishment] is when they hold the deeds of their ancestors in their hands and this [in the rejection of intergenerational punishment] is when they do not hold the deeds of their ancestors in their hands” (BT Berakhot 7a).

The Talmud resolves the tension between these conflicting verses by positing that intergenerational punishment is not totally vicarious but is dependent upon the actions of the individual – if they continue to sin then they will be punished but if they leave the path of iniquity then they will not be punished. But if it is contingent upon the person’s own actions, then why does their ancestry matter? The truth is that their ethnicity and their ancestry do matter – either we are more predisposed to quickly judge them harshly because they are just like their parents, or when they actually slip up themselves we punish them more harshly than we would someone without their lineage simply because of the group to which they belong. The deck is stacked against them. This predisposition to judgment is not merely a Talmudic hypothetical, but a reality that we observe all around us. Racial identity leads us to judge people and their actions differently.

There is a parallel sugya to our passage from Tractate Berakhot that appears in Tractate Sanhedrin 27b, which also raises the contradiction between biblical verses about vicarious punishment. This discussion similarly concludes that intergenerational punishment is dependent upon future generations clinging to the sins of their ancestors. But Sanhedrin introduces a further step in the conversation, challenging this conclusion: “But are [descendants] not [punished unless they cling to the sins of their ancestors]? Is it not written, ‘And they shall stumble one upon another’ (Lev. 26:37) [meaning that] a person will [stumble] due to the iniquity of their fellow? This teaches that all of them are responsible for one another (כולן ערבים זה בזה)! There [in Lev. 26:37 it was a case] in which it was possible for them to protest but they did not protest” (היה בידם למחות ולא מיחו). A straightforward reading of this dialectic would see the child as the person under discussion: The child is intertwined in the fate of their parents, implying that even if they do not continue their ancestors’ actions they are punished. The Talmud rejects this challenge by positing that the case is one in which the child could have protested against the acts of the parent(s) but did not and is therefore culpable for their own actions.

According to this surface reading, the deck is still stacked against the descendent; they need to proactively reject the inherited deeds of their parents that they have been raised with – certainly no easy task. But rather than adopt this approach that places the onus on the children I would offer an alternative reading. The person under discussion here is not the child but the bystander. “All of them are responsible for one another” (כולן ערבים זה בזה), not just the descendants. And thus it is incumbent upon all of us to protest against injustice in all forms. “It was possible for them to protest but they did not protest” – the deeds of the person’s parents are not specified here as the object of the protest, it can therefore be understood as protest against injustice in general. Through our protest against injustice we actualize our responsibility for one another.

In a world in which each person is born into circumstances beyond their control and is judged by society accordingly, we are responsible for ensuring equity. To be clear, I do not mean to imply that in a contemporary setting any racial or ethnic identity is in any way lesser or guilty in some fashion (although this is an assumption behind the biblical passages).* Rather my point is that just as in the biblical and rabbinic world, so too today, the circumstances of one’s birth impacts the way that all of us judge one another. And with my reading of Sanhedrin, it is all of our responsibility to fight against injustice that arises from such judgement in all of its forms.

*To reiterate, by drawing this comparison between the discrimination against the Ammonites, Moabites, and Mamzer, etc. and contemporary racial discrimination, I in no way intend that contemporary racial groups are responsible for any sort of transgressive activity. My comparison is wholly limited to the way that others react to a person based upon their ancestry – in antiquity because of something that their ancestors did and in contemporary times because of who their ancestors are.
Rabbi Matthew Goldstone, PhD, is the Assistant Academic Dean at the Academy for Jewish Religion where he teaches courses in Talmud and Jewish Law. Rabbi Goldstone is the author of The Dangerous Duty of Rebuke: Leviticus 19:17 in Early Jewish and Christian Interpretation.