Judaism: Upright in the Eyes of the Lord
I heard a speaker once explain that nothing in the study of humanity has changed since the time of Plato.
He was right, but not in the ways he imagined.
The most fundamental shift in our understanding of humanity – and a few other things besides – started only a few hundred years ago. It was an intellectual movement powered by a bunch of thinkers from the middle of nowhere.
Much of Europe, and the world, had been locked into thinking about the world as a machine. You set it in motion and it did x, y and z – predictably. This was how they designed machines. G-d, naturally, was the great watchmaker and His machine would function perfectly.
The Scottish thought differently. In Scotland (and in England), the clock was just as likely to be portrayed as the tool of the devil. They saw society as a series of competing organisms and feedback mechanisms. They applied it everywhere. Steam engines had been hampered by a simple problem. They blew up when pressures behaved unpredictably. James Watt built a simple steam valve. When things got over-pressured, the system literally ‘let off steam’ and went back to normal functioning.
This Scottish idea of feedback impacted areas as disparate as economics, our understandings of biology and our insights into human society and government (the free press as a check on government power).
Machine-like societies, on the other hand, have been abject failures.
Because of this history, Western people tend to believe in the freedom of the press. We tend to view our world as competing forces balancing each other out. This idea is a foundation of our modern society.
My own mother (Chana Cox) has written extensively about feedback systems in politics and in the world at large. Her work is fantastic and compelling.
All of this only adds to my difficulty in reading this week’s parsha.
On its surface, Parshat Re’eh rejects these values more strongly than any other part of Torah.
Our modern world is built on seeing multiple forces interacting with one another. The ancients did as well. As the Torah portion states, they saw gods in the trees and the high mountains. But in Parshat Re’eh, we are commanded to smash the altars of these gods. We are commanded to eliminate their presence. Only one power is acknowledged.
Our modern world sees value in free speech. But in this reading, we are commanded to kill our own family if they utter the words “let us go and serve other gods.” We are commanded to destroy entire cities – even the cattle – if they share that same idea. It reminds the modern reader of Pol Pot and the Cambodian genocide. If you said a wrong word, your own family would report you – and kill you.
We see the value in the freedom of conscious. But not this parsha. “No longer shall you do what is upright in your own eyes.” The individual’s values are seemingly obliterated.
We abhor extremism. We’ve seen what it does. And yet this parsha seems to command it.
We can ignore these difficulties. We often do. Those who follow Torah tell ourselves that these are laws for another time or for another people. Perhaps even more frighteningly, we can embrace this vision. While coerced belief is never strong – the desire to coerce can be overwhelming. This can lead us to imaging the importance of imposing our ideas on society; and the wonders that such unity would seem to unleash.
I’d suggest another approach.
Parshat Re’eh is the first of the parshiot in the book of Devarim to lack history. The first reading recalled the growth of our national responsibility. The second, the establishment of our national covenant with G-d. And the third explored the many rebellions of our people. In each of these cases, the history and the changes made to that history, serve as a touch point for understanding the messages of the parsha.
But this reading has no history.
The closest it comes is in the recounting of the laws of Kashrut. As with the other readings, a critical and revealing change is made. In the original rendition of Kashrut, the word toavah does not appear. Toavah suggests disgust.
There are basic human emotions: joy, surprise, anger, sadness, fear and disgust. But disgust in unique. It is the only basic emotion which we learn. Babies do not consider even their own vomit disgusting.
Because it is learned, Toavah is relative. The Egyptians have their own sense of toavah, Joseph tells his brothers (paraphrasing), “Say you’re shepherds and you’ll be able to live in Goshen because the Egyptians consider shepherds toavah.”
Because it is learned, it is disgust which most distinctly defines a society. And in no place is disgust more clearly felt than in the area of food.
It is thus Kashrut that illustrates the culture we are trying to build and why we protect it the way we do.
When we look at the original laws of Kashrut and we break down the creatures by the restrictions on interaction, we can see a pattern emerging. At one extreme are creatures with little similarity to us. At the other are creatures with tremendous capabilities; creatures which modern science has an increasingly hard time qualitatively distinguishing from humanity.
We don’t eat either.
Going way back, we see that G-d creates for six days and rests on the seventh. As mankind was created in the image of G-d, we want to imitate this pattern, creating for six days and resting on the seventh. This represents our greatest potential. In the Garden, we rested fine. But we created nothing. We needed exile and loss to learn to create and imitate G-d. Ideally, however, there would be no loss – only the full realization of our potentials.
When we look at the world, we can see – at one extreme – creatures that bear little resembles to us. They are sheketz, or alien. They lack our physical and spiritual potential. We do not bring them into our bodies. At the other extreme are creatures which are rich in potential. Just as with human bodies, their dead bodies are impure – they represent the loss of potential. Like monkeys, their shortcomings are so hard to pin down, but still so real that even touching them in life represents a connection to loss.
Our food illustrates a core message of our people - we constantly avoiding even a symbolic connection to lost potential.
It is this message, the message of avoiding lost potential, which runs throughout this reading. We pour the blood out onto the ground, because our eating of the blood stunts the animal’s spiritual potential. We pour blood onto the altar, because its dedication to Hashem represents a maximization of that same potential. We give the newly released slave his own stock of animals so that he is restarted with open-ended potential. We abhor the sacrifice of children – because it represents the destruction of the future. We do not eat kids in their mother’s milk. The milk represents the physiological dedication to the future – to the ongoing creation of potential. But the kid represents death and the end of a chain. Combining meat and milk is a perversion. We do not cut ourselves – injuring the living to honor the dead.
How does this explain the extremism that seems to run throughout this reading?
A side effect of our use of feedback systems is that our world is one which values moderation. This is what competing forces represent. But moderation is not a positive force – it is a force which accepts reality as it is. It is moderation that denied blacks in America freedom. It is moderation which today embraces public sexuality. Moderation slows change, but it can also deny what is right.
It is not our job to embrace moderation.
Instead, we stand for an extreme. That extreme is the cycle of creation and spiritual rest. That extreme is the maximization of physical and spiritual potential. When we worship other gods, we toss aside this ideal. We may go so far as to literally sacrifice our children and our future. This is defined as Hashem’s toavah. This we must act against without moderation and without feedback.
This portion illustrates a fundamental truth. We live in a world of feedback systems. We live in a world chock full of individual forces. But we still need a moral compass. Without it, our societies and our science can easily be twisted to evil ends.
When we read carefully, we see that this reading does not condemn free speech or the use of competing forces. It does not argue for a totalitarian solution. It restricts speech in only one area – the core identification of our moral core. We can, and always have, argued about what exactly that moral core demands of us.
But, in this reading, all our offerings must come to one place. And, in this reading, we act violently against those who would seek to undermine our moral truth.
This reading doesn’t have history. It looks to the future. When we come to the land, we come to a place of blessings from Hashem; a place where the cycle of physical and spiritual potential – especially through offerings in the Mishkan – can be maximized.
As the rendition of Matzoh at the end of the reading illustrates, before we were afflicted. In haste, we could not make good decisions. We could not even make bread in advance – knowing when we would leave.
But we are no longer wandering.
The path has been made clear.
Now, we can do what is right in the eyes of G-d.