I have been quite distressed about the events that played out in France earlier this week. If you tuned out from the world over the last few days, then you missed the fact that an Al Qaeda sympathizer (and French citizen of North African descent) shot four Jews (including several children) connected to the Jewish day school in Toulouse, France and three French paratroopers. The shooter is now dead. For me the shocking anti-Semitism that sprang forth from this man's fundamentalist Islamic identity is only a tiny bit more disturbing than the fact that a human being would be able to commit this kind of heinous violence in any context.
The incident got me to thinking about the broader philosophical question that asks: where does our morality...our sense of right and wrong...come from?
This week, Jews all over the world begin reading the third book of the Torah: Sefer Vayikra (the Book of Leviticus). Vayikra, the Hebrew name of Leviticus as well as the name of this week's Torah portion, means "He [God] called."
Responding to the fact that the portion opens with the announcement that God specifically called out to Moses, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, founder of Modern Orthodoxy in 19th century Germany, suggests that the Torah uses these words to emphasize Divine Authorship of the Torah. Which is to say that vayikra, to Hirsch, is proof of an actual, direct, personal revelation from God to Moses. And, for Hirsch and traditional Judaism....that Moses passed the contents of that revelation (i.e. message from God) to the Israelites who.....after a few thousand years ultimately passed it down to us.
For Hirsch and for traditional Judaism: our morality...our sense of right and wrong comes directly from God. We know that we're not supposed to do X because the Torah says so. And we know that the Torah is "right" because God authored it.
There are many, many Jews in the world today who embrace that theology. And not just in Orthodoxy. There are even some members of our own Reform community who think about the text (and God) in that way.
Although it is my job as a rabbi to respect that view, and to support those whose faith journeys have brought them to that place, I myself cannot embrace that way of thinking about our sacred text, and about God.
Over-venerating a sacred text, and justifying violence out of a belief that a person's sacred text is the 'absolute truth' is in my opinion extraordinarily irresponsible. It was extraordinarily irresponsible of this Muslim fanatic in France (whose name I cannot bring myself to type here) in exactly the same way that it was extraordinarily irresponsible of someone like Baruch Goldstein to massacre innocent Arabs or for Yigal Amir to assassinate Yitzchak Rabin. Goldstein and Amir, both so-called observant Jews, believed that their interpretations of Judaism justified their respective acts of violence.
There is, of course, a wide wide gulf between a person who believes that Scripture was authored by God, and a person who uses that belief to justify acts of violence. Nonetheless, for me, there is a certain danger even in believing that the text was divinely authored...because it brings us that much closer to the slippery slope of authorizing violence in the name of God/tradition.
(I hope some of you will disagree with me on this point! Would love to hear from you about it.)
But let's say you agree with me...that the Torah was not authored by God. Where does that leave us? What is the source of our morality? If we do not believe that God authored the text, then what makes the Torah special? And if it is not 'special', then how/why should we rely on it more for moral guidance than any of the other great texts of our world....like Homer or Shakespeare?
I wish that this blog posting gave me the space to begin answering that central question! There are so many different answers that modern Judaism offers to it....answers from thinkers whose names are Buber and Rosenzweig and Kaplan - Jewish philosophers who 'privileged' the Bible because it is the sacred text handed down by our people....but who did not 'over-privilege it' - by presuming divine authorship.
Anyone who cares about their Jewish identity outside of an Orthodox context should be spending more time studying these thinkers! But in the meantime, I want to turn the tables and ask you: Who/What Calls Out to You? How are you guided in the moral choices that you make every day? How do you distinguish between right and wrong? Are your choices based on words that are printed in a book (Bible or otherwise)? Are they based on values that a role model taught you? Are they based on a set of rules that you/your conscience deduced for yourself? On this week in which we celebrate vayikra, Who/What Calls Out to You?
I'd love to hear your thoughts...as always.