Why is Judaism Inherently Intolerant of Racism and Discrimination?
When you think of the Torah as the “owner’s manual”, or more accurately, “loaners manual” of the Jewish people, the first thing you learn, literally, the first, is that God’s “interest” is not in one people alone, but in all peoples, and all of humanity. We learn that with the first letter, the first words and the first verses of the Torah. It opens not with the promise of partnership with Abraham and Sarah (which would indicate interest in a particular family/people) but with the creation of all life. It sets into motion the understanding that the world was created for all humankind, with us all tasked to be the caregivers, the park rangers, if you will, to oversee life and wellbeing in our/God’s world.
In God’s “choosing” Abraham and Sarah, in the third portion of Genesis, to be in Covenant, it was not to exclude other partnerships with humanity as much as to set into motion the structure of teams of peoples and groups, mandated to find their own unique relationships with God. The Torah’s premise is that just as none of us looks like another, no one group is better than or superior to another. In placing the first humans in a Garden of Paradise, as the “second” creation story indicates (following the “first” creation account of the Seven Days of Creation) with the account of Adam and Eve, and then removing them for eating the forbidden fruit (all metaphorical!), the Game is to find a healthy way for human beings to enter partnership with God in a world that will be filled with challenges. The lesson from Torah is that the best way for this “experiment” in physicality to succeed (i.e. wherein God can join in such a construct) is to create particular identities and varieties for humanity to embrace and through which to seek a long term goal of Shalom, wholeness comprised of many unique parts and peoples.
The second book of the Torah provides a dual blueprint for humanity, via the Jewish story, by which to inspire societies to be inclusive and respectful of all peoples in pursuit of a world of Shalom.
The first blueprint is reflected in the Passover holiday. The Jewish people were born out of an overnight escape from hundreds of years of enslavement to Egypt. In both the midst of and aftermath of the Exodus, the Torah emphasizes and reemphasizes repeatedly, throughout all the other books of the Torah, that the Jewish people are to constantly remember that they were slaves in Egypt. They are to keep in heart and mind, years after, how that experience felt, and what lessons they learned. It is unacceptable for societies to enslave or mistreat groups or individuals, in seeing them as peripheral to or different from the mainstream of society. Thus, even before leaving Egypt, the primary mandate given by Moses to the people was to teach their children the story and value of the Exodus. We, and all those coming after us, must take to heart that God did not create humans to enslave others. We are all children of God and endowed with the gift of being created in God’s image. Each person is uniquely precious; each is uniquely endowed with the gift of God’s Presence, with the ability to think, make decisions and to have the God given choice to do good or not…to create or destroy, with each endowed with an inclination for good and an inclination for bad (which is rendered good when in partnership with the inclination for good).
Therefore, the experience of, and the obligation to always recall, the Exodus provides its own infrastructure for understanding and accepting that there is to be no enslavement by one people of another. We must all tap into the memories of what it was/is like to be mistreated by someone having more power. To use the Passover Seder imagery, if all we had was the mandate to remember how it feels/felt to be poorly treated, dayenu/enough! That should suffice to keep us focused on living with love and care and respect for others different from us. The Torah mandates that we are to love the stranger because we are to remember, and never forget, that we were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Yet, in addition to the call to never forget viscerally what it was like to be enslaved in Egypt, fifty days after celebrating that teaching (through the Passover Seder), we arrive at Mt. Sinai where we are given a whole package of instructions that would codify the lessons of Egypt. It begins with the first utterance of the Ten Commandments in which we are reminded that the only reason we are standing at Sinai is because God brought us out of slavery; thereby God called upon us, via Moses, to never forget the beginning of our peoplehood and the lessons to keep and apply from those origins. The gift of Torah fills us with details for applying lessons of such memories of slavery, in accepting an obligation to be responsible with detailed attention to day-by-day behavior, in building a society of caring and inclusiveness.
What results are manifold ways of accepting and understanding that human beings exist with the obligation to care for one another: one way being to remember how it feels/felt to be mistreated by others, and in so doing to build empathy and commitment to care for others that are vulnerable. The other way was through the Revelation at Sinai with the giving of a detailed legal system assuring responsibility and caring for others different from you. The Torah, in providing as many as 613 Mitzvot/Responsibilities/Obligations mandates that, as a system, Judaism joins with all forces that address wrongdoing, not only when we are on the receiving end of it, but to lean into our prophetic tradition and speak out and stand up for all peoples that are being mistreated.
Right now, we are experiencing a reawakening, in our country, to values already inherent in America’s supposed identity, due to the founding fathers and early communities leaning heavily on the teachings in our Torah: that each of us is created in God’s image, and all of us are responsible, not just for the wellbeing of our individual families and groups. Instead, we are to join forces with all people motivated by teachings, found in Judaism, and in other sacred traditions, to address imbalances and wrongs, wherever we see them. That is what is so heartening about the response, both in our country and around the world, to the shocking murder of George Floyd; it is seemingly the last straw, resulting in questioning systemic abuse of people of color and of so many victimized by people in power, who misuse it to diminish the God-given rights of others, and of us all.
In holding fast to teachings of caring, and in accepting responsibility for pursuit of justice and goodness as generated in the Torah, we must also keep in mind, Jewishly, that we do not learn the breadth and depth of Jewish values from Torah words alone (called the Written Law), but also through the teachings of the ages and developments of the sages, even through our own times. So, while the death penalty may be applicable seemingly all to readily in the Torah, the Oral Law, the Talmud, virtually (no pun intended) legislates the banning of the death penalty (though it appears Derek Chauvin would qualify(!) in that by Talmudic law he was warned several times that he was killing Mr. Floyd and seemed to acknowledge it by his body language!).
Similarly, we must check biases and prejudices, wherever we find them, even when embedded in the Torah. While the Torah comes out harshly on intimate relations that are not heterosexual, we must recall context, in Torah times; the important emphasis at the start was on growing a people that would survive to become partners with God, thereby seeming to necessitate negating relationships that did not promote procreation. Just as we “outgrew” the death penalty with rare exceptions, so we know clearly now that we live in times that the emphasis is on building respect for differences and multiple ways of expressing our love and relationships with one another. All life is sacred!
Jewishly we celebrate broad-based community with our own beacon of light to the nations in encouraging the outpouring of support for changes in how people are treated in our country, and everywhere. Justice and compassion, and the ratification of equal rights and opportunity for all, must become the transformative process that will truly make our country great. Embracing such principles aligns Jewish values of inclusiveness and respect for human rights for all, as children of one Creator, with the very premises upon which our country was envisioned and founded, in provoking our breaking away from England, and the old ways of oppression and cruel treatment of those not in power, which were the sour fruits of the old country.
With life considered sacred above all else, according to Jewish law, the challenge today is to find balance in speaking out with the power of our prophetic tradition against all injustice that has tainted our country, with the necessity to strive to stay safe amidst this historic Covid pandemic.