Recently in The CJN, Barbara Kay argues that the liberal Jewish world allows its politics to dictate halakhic understanding. She claims that Jews of the political left force their ideologies onto the Torah, rather than getting them from it. Kay presents three specific examples – abortion, homosexuality, and transgenderism – to make her point. In each case, she shares a brief tour of the topic as it is found in the Torah, and then asserts that anyone who believes in the Torah should be against all three. According to Kay, to claim that Judaism supports any of these would be an act of intellectual dishonesty, and progressive Jews force their political beliefs onto the Torah with a complete disregard for the values it affirms. In our view, she deliberately distorts our faith to claim that her view is the authentically Jewish one, and all else is nonsense.
Kay correctly points out that there are plenty of Jews and rabbis who claim that their political ideologies are the Jewish ones. Yet, that isn’t only found among Jews on the left. There are plenty on the right end of politics that commit this exact same act using a forced reading of the Torah to endorse their political views. We need only point to the sermons of the 19th century to see how rabbis used Torah to support views on both sides of the slavery debate. But while arguing that her views on these issues are the authentically Jewish ones, Kay goes no deeper than the Torah to find her sources. As any informed Jew knows, the Judaism we all practise is not the Judaism prescribed in the Torah. That is an ancient Israelite sacrificial cult.
We should always cherish the Torah, but we must recognize that it is the foundation of our religious life, not the culmination of it. We need only look to the Passover seder, which shares its basis in the Torah but is also a culmination of centuries of rabbinic evolution and interaction with the surrounding culture, to prove this point. The Torah knows nothing of four cups of wine, the afikomen, or the beloved Four Questions, after all.
A Judaism sprung from Torah alone is as inauthentic as a Judaism that ignores it. The American Conservative Rabbi Elliot Dorff tells a story about his father visiting his rabbi. A woman was there asking him about the kashrut of a chicken. As the rabbi examined the chicken, he asked her all sorts of questions – about her husband’s health, about their kids, their financial situation. He ultimately decided the chicken was kosher. After the woman had left, Rabbi Dorff’s father asked him why he had asked so many questions about her family and not the chicken. The rabbi turned and said, “If you think the kashrut of a chicken only depends on the chicken, you understand nothing about halakhah!” Halakhah is not about the law alone – it is about developing a relationship between various values found in our tradition, and honestly approaching a question with an open mind in search of living life with holiness.
The Torah begins not with laws, but with narratives because that is where law is applied – in real life situations with real people who deserve dignity and respect. Recognizing that we are all created betzelem Elohim (in the image of God), we ought to champion inclusivity rather than put up barriers that push people away. Kay does not promote Jewish law. She espouses fundamentalism. This is dangerous and wrong and it is the same process of reading selected verses in a vacuum that gives rise to the fundamentalist Christian and Islamist groups promoting hatred today.
Yes, there are those who will force progressive politics in the name of Judaism, but is that what the rabbis of the Talmud did when they ended capital punishment for biblical crimes? Is not stoning people who break Shabbat, commit adultery, or simply talk back to their parents progressive politics? Was it inauthentic Jewish political progressivism that led Rabeinu Gershom in the 10th century to forbid polygamy?
The Torah is the foundation of a long chain that has always interacted with the world in which it was lived. If our tradition is to continue and thrive, we must interpret Torah and halakhah with these values in mind.
Louis Sachs is assistant rabbi at Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto. Erin Polansky is the rabbi at Neshamah: A New Model for Jewish Community in Vaughan, Ont.