August 5, 1999
Following the Rule of Law
Parashat Re'eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17)
Some of the Torah's laws are difficult to comply with. Others are easier. One that certainly belongs in the latter category is the law that prohibits us from engaging in child sacrifice. For us, it is hard to imagine anything more morally and emotionally repulsive than this ancient pagan practice.
However, for the ancient Israelites about to emerge form the Sinai desert into the land of Canaan, this law could not be emphasized enough times.
In advance of the Israelites' imminent entry into a thoroughly pagan land, Moses adjures them in the strongest possible terms to resist the abominable practices, including fiery child sacrifice, that were endemic to that world. Anticipating how hard it will be for them to be the only ones who are different, Moses repeatedly and vehemently urges them to remain true to the revolutionary system of Torah that God had taught them in the desert.
Our tendency would be to regard Torah passages such as these as having only historical value. After all, the battle against paganism, and its gross disregard for the value of human life, has been long won. Legally sanctioned rape, ritual mutilation of the body, and the sale or sacrifice of children have been eradicated (at least in the part of the world that we interact with).
The Torah's great inaugural battle was a fantastic success, and we contemporary Jews look to other areas for spiritual challenge. I would suggest, though, that we have let our guard down too soon. Paganism lives on, albeit in sleek, celluloid garb.
Following the Columbine High tragedy, there was an intense, if too brief, flurry of activity concerning violence in the entertainment industry. All the usual suspects -- politicians and entertainment executives -- gathered and spoke their familiar lines. But the most important question was not asked: "Why is it that we regard violence as entertainment altogether?" The short answer is that paganism is alive and well. The premise that brought us child sacrifice, the premise that brought us the gladiators in the coliseums and the jousts in medieval courts, the premise that there is nothing intrinsically sacred about human life, is displayed daily on the silver screen.
The Jewish attitude could not possibly be more different. The Torah's emphasis on the value and preciousness of human life renders harm done to a human being as the ultimate tragedy. Violence is a necessary evil at times, but an evil whose disappearance is the sine qua non of the messianic age. The grand trajectory of human history, according to our tradition, is from the murder of Abel at the hand of Cain, to the day when "they shall do no evil, nor destroy in all My holy mount. For the earth will have become filled with the knowledge of God, as the waters fill the sea" (Isaiah 11:9).
Violence is not entertaining. The glorification of violence drives the world backward rather than forward. Violence-as-entertainment is one of paganism's last great stands.
It is especially striking to find the articulation of this vision, and our passionate commitment to it, in the writings of the Mishna. For the Mishna is not a book of eschatological vision, but simply a book of law. But so deeply rooted is our religious aspiration to a nonviolent world that it cannot help but find expression in even the most technical parts of Jewish literature.
The Mishna (Shabbat 6:4) is found in the context of the laws concerning carrying in the public domain on Shabbat. The Mishna first establishes the general principle that items which are part of a person's garb -- including ornamental items -- may be worn out into the public domain on Shabbat without any infraction of the Shabbat law being incurred. Jewelry, for example, may be worn. The question then arises as to the permissibility of wearing one's sword or other weapon into the public domain. Are these to be considered "ornaments" and thus part of a person's garb?
Rabbi Eliezer rules that they are. The Sages, however, disagree, ruling that weapons are not ornaments for human beings. They are, rather, a sign of failure and shame. And the sages corroborate their opinion by citing another well-known verse from Isaiah -- "and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift sword against nation, and they shall learn war no more" (2:4).
There is no glory in violence. And a commitment to the Jewish worldview involves proclaiming this view loudly, clearly and fearlessly.
So let us not dismiss as antiquated Moses' command that we stand up and proclaim our revulsion with pagan culture. Our children and grandchildren, our prophets and sages are all waiting upon us to act.
Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B'nai David Judea in Los Angeles.