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Parashat Hashavua Va'etchanan 2013 / 5773 - Western Values, Jewish Values, and The Wisdom of the Torah

17.07.2013 by

For centuries, the Jewish people have struggled with the question of what our relationship to the non-Jewish intellectual world should be. There is a Rabbinic demand that we need study חכמת יונית - which literally meansd Greek wisdom, is often understood as philosophy, but may well just mean sign language. On the other hand, the greatest Rabbi of the Medieval period (and perhaps of any other), Maimonides, spent  a tremendous amount of time and energy thinking and writing about Aristotle, while many in his and later generations took exception to his decision to do so. Modern scientific theories, concerning evolution and the age of the earth (and the universe) are seen as highly problematic in some Jewish circles, while others have no problem with them - or even embrace them: the important Jewish thinker and one of the creators of religious Zionism,  Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, (1865-1935) wrote that evolution is one of the clearest illustrations of the presence of the אין סוף - the infinite, transcendent God, in the created world. At the same time, ultra-orthodox schools in Israel will not let their students visit caves in the Bet Shemesh area because the audio there says that the stalactites and stalagmites, and the caves themselves, were formed over a period of many thousands of years, way beyond 5,733.  There is currently,  in Israel, a discussion about "western values" and their admissability into the Jewish intellectual conversation. I could keep on giving you examples, but you get the idea.

This week's parsha, V'etchanan, continues the speech which Moshe began in parshat Devarim, exhorting the Jewish people to remain true to the covenant and keep the mitzvot after Moshe dies and they enter the promised land. One of these beautiful passages in V'etchanan goes like this: "Behold  I have taught you statutes and laws which the Lord God commanded me, for you to do in the land which you will go into to inherit. Be careful to do them, for this is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations, that they will hear these statutes and say 'what a wise and insightful nation are these people'. For who is a great people to whom God is close, as the Lord our God is whenever we call to Him? And who is a great people which has just laws and statutes, such as this entire Torah which I give before you today?"

The simple meaning of these verses is clear. Our laws are meant to impress. Our behavior, based on these laws, is meant to inspire. Not only are we meant to think that the Torah is wise and just, we must also live according to it in such a way as to convince the rest of the world that this is the case. It follows pretty clearly, therefore, that if the nations of the world do not look with respect at our legal system and way of life, then we are doing something wrong. Rashi, in his comment on the verse immediately following these ones, which warns the Jews to "Be very careful, lest you forget the things which your eyes saw", says that if you remember the laws and do them correctly, then you will be considered wise, but if you "twist them due to forgetting them, you will be considered fools."   One could therefore make the argument that he litmus test for whether we are doing the laws of the Torah the right way or "twisting them" would be the non-Jewish assessment of Jews and Judaism - and I am not talking about how many Nobel Prize winners we have, though that might be a fringe benefit. What is supposed to happen is that Jews, living a Torah life, should impress the nations with their wisdom and understanding. The Torah, as we understand and live it, should be demonstrably wise, and obviously just, to non-Jewish eyes. If it is not, then, as Rashi says, it would seem that we have forgotten something very basic about our Judaism, and "twisted" it into something else. 

Now, if this is the case, then the Torah would seem to have us very much in dialogue with the rest of the world's nations.  The Torah assumes that they have the tools and skills to judge what is wise and what is foolish, and that their judgement is important to us, it matters. We are part of the intellectual conversation the world is having about values, wisdom, justice, the good life, and we are meant to influence that conversation with our understanding of and alliegance to the ways of the Torah. Now, I am more than willing to admit that there have probably been any number of non-Jewish (and perhaps Jewish) societies whose opinions we really don't care about, who do not know, or have anything important to say about, what is right and wrong, wise and foolish, good and bad. But the Torah is telling us that many non-Jewish societies do have something to say about these issues, and we are meant to care about what they say.

I am willing to go a bit further, and posit that we must also figure out how to present the Torah, perhaps even how to understand the Torah, so that it is perceived as wise and just by other nations. This, by the way, would go a long way towards explaining why Maimonides was so concerned with Aristotle. If the Greek philosopher was the gold standard of non-Jewish (human) wisdom, then we must be able to understand and explain the Torah in a way that would impress him and his followers as very wise, or else we are not living up to what Moshe is saying here, we are not showing the world the wisdom of the Torah. This was a major part of what Maimonides saw as his life work.

The implications of this are clear. As the non-Jewish world and its intellectual standards and perceptions evolve, our understanding of the Torah is expected to evolve with them. We are meant to interpret and live the Torah in a way which remains impressive in terms of whatever the best of the rest of the world is thinking - we must keep it current, and relevant, and as impressivley wise as it was to the world as when we first got it.  Of course, there are those who would blithely dismiss the entire non-Jewish intellectual world as unworthy, not up to the task which it apparently once could do of judging right from wrong. Our non-Jewish interlocuters, according to this way of thinking, are a long way off from Aristotle, or subsequent great thinkers, and we need not take them into account; on the contrary, we are meant to oppose or ignore their essentially non-Jewish ways of thinking.  I would hesitate to make this assumption. The world, though certainly replete with nonsense, and worse, is also clearly full of wisdom and insight about these important issues, and we are bound by these verses to not forget that the Torah needs to be as wise and just as the world is; in fact wiser and more just, if we are meant to be as impressive as Moshe makes us out to be here. These verses clearly demand that we engage in a dialogue with the non-Jewish intellectual community, and be concerned with their opinions. Not always in agreement, but engaged seriously in an interaction. We must always remember that we are meant to be right at the center of the ongoing, universal conversation about ideas and values, and not reflexively and inherently in an oppositional stance.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

If the nations of the world do not look with respect at our legal system and way of life, then we are doing something wrong.Rabbi Shimon

Torah Portion Summary - Va'etchanan


Moshe begins the parsha of V'etchanan - "And I Begged" - with the story of how he beseeched God, unsuccessfully, to forgive him for the sin of hitting, rather than talking to, the rock, and allow him to enter the Land of Israel. He then reminds the people of the importance of keeping the laws of the Torah, stressing that it is the widsdom of the Torah's laws which communicates the particuar greatness of the Jewish people to the rest of the world. He reviews the giving of the Ten Commandments,  and repeats them here, with some slight textual differences. Moshe also gives the people the Shema - the central Jewish text of faith, commitment, and Torah study, beginning "Hear, oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one." Moshe reminds the people of the importance of remembering the Exodus from Egypt, and of not intermarrying with the Canaanite nations once they arrive in Israel.


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