The uncomfortable parts of Torah

By Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker
Parashat Behar-Bechukotai

The Torah contains powerful ethical teachings that are celebrated throughout Jewish tradition: Every person was created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). Care for those without power in society because we were strangers in Egypt (many places). The Torah is also filled with contradictions — including teachings that contradict some of these fundamental values.

In this week’s Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai, we read: “B’achiv lo tirdeh vo b’fared — regarding your brother (fellow Israelite), no one shall rule with cruelty over another” (Leviticus 25:46). These words are meant to clarify whom an Israelite can own as a slave and how slaves are to be treated. While we cannot own one of our kin, Leviticus 25 makes it permissible to own people from other nations as property that could be passed down from generation to generation. 

Today, many would prefer to ignore these verses, try to explain them away or just be embarrassed by them. Back in January, 1861, the prominent New York rabbi, Rev. Morris Raphall, used such teachings to justify the Biblical legitimacy of the institution of slavery. He explained, “I grieve to find myself saying a good word for slavery, but God and the truth must prevail!” He was not alone in his support. Rabbi David Einhorn strongly disagreed. 

Einhorn was radical when it came to reforming Judaism but was not politically active. He had left the German states in 1855 for the United States and served as the rabbi at Har Sinai Congregation in Baltimore, Maryland, where slavery was legal. After Raphall’s sermon was published, Einhorn was so upset that he issued a point by point refutation that included:

God created man in His image.… A book which sets up this principle and at the same time says that all human beings are descended from the same human parents, can never approve of slavery and have it find favor in the sight of God….” In his conclusion, he wrote, “I am no politician and do not meddle in politics. But to proclaim slavery in the name of Judaism to be a God-sanctioned institution — the Jewish-religious press must raise objections to this, if it does not want itself and Judaism branded forever.”

His congregation and his community were outraged. In April 1861, weeks after Einhorn’s sermon was delivered and published, a riot broke out that destroyed Einhorn’s printing press and forced him to flee his congregation and his home. He resettled in Philadelphia.

We celebrate diverse opinions in Judaism. Some of those diverse opinions can be uncomfortable. Einhorn literally caused a riot that ran him out of town for opposing slavery. Chassidic Jews were excommunicated twice by the Vilna Gaon in the 18th century. And just over a month ago, the Religious Zionist Party won six seats in Israel’s most recent elections. It contains factions that oppose Israel’s justice system and LGBT rights, and support racial separation and expelling Arabs.

Such views can be much closer to home. After college, I went to work in Detroit at a civil and human rights organization. When I looked at a couple of apartments in the city, my beloved great-aunt asked me, “Why do you want to go live with the shvartzahs (a derogatory Yiddish term for black people)?”

Judaism teaches that every human life is equal to the entire world. Jews and Jewish teachings can also devalue other Jews and devalue other people. We have to acknowledge that both are a part of our past and our present. We also have to understand that Judaism changes over time. Today, there’s no debate — we stand with Einhorn. All of humanity is sacred. All of humanity is family. Through our words and deeds, may we help to bring about a world where every human being is treated with dignity and respect.

Charlie Cytron-Walker is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville.

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