SERMON: July 20, 2018
Do you remember the riots in Baltimore after the police arrested Freddie Gray, and in the van ride that followed, managed to break his neck and back, putting him into a coma from which he died the next day?
During that week, Tim and I were in New York where I was getting my Doctor of Divinity from Hebrew Union College. That Friday evening, we decided to go to Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the LGBT synagogue in New York that Tim and I had been very active in during the 1980’s, when they didn’t have a building or a rabbi. During that time, the AIDS crisis was at its height in the gay community, and it seemed to me like laws didn’t really seem to protect us, and in fact the laws seemed to be causing more death. Still, during that time that little synagogue meant the world to us, so going back to seem them now with a rabbi and a new fancy building was exciting.
We walked into their Chelsea building, very nice, and it was very much a homecoming, with some of our friends from back in the day hugging us and all of us really enjoying being together. There were lots of children, something there had not been in the 1980’s, and in addition to the flamboyant characters we had known, there were NY State Supreme Court justices and other people who were now in powerful positions.
Their rabbi, Sharon Kleinbaum, is someone who I didn’t always agree with, but very much respected her social justice activism and leadership in the Jewish community. Rabbi Kleinbaum started talking about the riots in Baltimore, about the TV show “The Wire,” which I hadn’t really watched, but then she said this, and for some reason, it hit me very deeply at that moment as one of the reasons I so deeply love Judaism.
She said, “in Judaism, we are made holy through law. Without law, there can be no holiness.”
Now I must confess, that my mother desperately wanted me to be a lawyer, and I tried but I just never liked it because I bristled at all the sexist, racist, and homophobic laws and the attempts to justify them with pat phrases like “rule of law.”
I had also found myself exploring Jewish spiritual paths that were much more mystical, individual, and that really took a somewhat dismissive approach to the notion of law as holy. Love is the only law, so many of them say. All religions area about Love.
Even Maimonides, the greatest legal scholar in Jewish history, in his great work, The Guide for the Perplexed, says that laws are for people who are not really enlightened, for the common people to follow, and he often said, “ha-mevin yavin” those who understand will understand.
Cryptic, but with just the right dismissive tone to rule-followers.
So when Rabbi Kleinbaum said that we are made holy through law, I was about to roll my eyes, but mid roll, something shifted, and I really heard what she was saying.
Without law, individuals may do very loving and caring things, as they do in places where the law is failing, but as a society, we can’t hope to be good, to be holy, without laws that are just, fair, and central to our sense of who we are.
As Thomas Hobbes, the 17th Century British political philosopher, famously wrote that when there is no law, we live in a state where we in a war of everyone against everyone.
He wrote that without law, without a sense of awe at the law, there can be no justice. “There is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
Today, we start reading the Book of Deuteronomy, the book of the law, what was called “Torah” before the five books were, and almost all of Deuteronomy is about law.
In fact, the book is one long monologue by Moses on the law, and it is fascinating to me, that this book-length sermon (see, I’m not so bad!) begins with a short prologue and then says this:
So I took your tribal leaders, wise and experienced men, and appointed them heads over you: chiefs of thousands, chiefs of hundreds, chiefs of fifties, and chiefs of tens, and officials for your tribes.
וָאֲצַוֶּה֙ אֶת־שֹׁ֣פְטֵיכֶ֔ם בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִ֖וא לֵאמֹ֑ר שָׁמֹ֤עַ בֵּין־אֲחֵיכֶם֙ וּשְׁפַטְתֶּ֣ם צֶ֔דֶק בֵּֽין־אִ֥ישׁ וּבֵין־אָחִ֖יו וּבֵ֥ין גֵּרֽוֹ׃
I charged your magistrates at that time as follows, “Hear out your fellow men, and decide justly between any man and a fellow Israelite or a stranger.
Why did Moses start with this, instead of the 10 commandments, or the Shema which is six chapters later, or with Sinai. Why would he start with this comment about fair courts and just legal procedures? It seems a bit narrow for the start of a great speech.
I think Rabbi Kleinbaum had it exactly right. It is because in Judaism, law is not what keeps us from being bad, a negative justice, but rather law is what allows us to be good, to create stable societies that can be just. America might have a romantic fascination with the Wild West, but Judaism sees it as unholy, unjust, and not what God wants from us if we are to live up to our potential to make a better world.
Throughout the Torah, over and over again, the importance of law and a fair court system is stressed. There is almost nothing in Judaism worse that perjuring yourself in a court, or accepting bribes, or siding with the powerful against the poor, or siding with the poor against the powerful.
We are taught: Tzedek,Tzedek Tirdof JUSTICE, JUSTICE PURSUE (Deut 16:20)
The word Tzedek, which is also the root of Tzedakah, is often translated as righteous, but its basic meaning in ‘justice’. In other words, being just in law and being good are inseparable in Jewish thought.
It is not only the Torah, but the Mishnah and Talmud is one big legal argument, and there are very long and very detailed tractates on how to examine a witness, how to select a judge, how to be a judge, what is admissible in court, etc, all in great detail. Judaism is a religion rooted in law. Rabbis are the original lawyers. That law is called halakha.
But of course, as Reform Jews, we don’t tend to approach Judaism legalistically, but more in terms of ethics and spiritual lessons. We are not strictly a halachic movement.
But that is because we see the law of the nations in which we live as the law we must follow, using the rabbinic dictum:
Dina d’malchuta dina: The law of the land is the law.
And of course, progressive Jews have played an enormous role in American jurisprudence, whether we are talking about Justice Brandeis or Justice Ginsberg, to name two.
We have been instrumental in trying to create justice in this nation, but when we do so, we are acting on an ancient impulse that tells us that without law, there can be no justice or holiness.
It is no wonder then that so many of us are so concerned about the rule of law in this country right now.
We seem to living in a time with respect for rule of law is unravelling, or being unraveled by those that would place themselves above the law.
And there are genuine flaws in our justice system, as that situation in Baltimore, and so many other places has shown with the shooting of unarmed black men in numbers that can’t ben coincidence.
But there is also a cynicism about law and civil society that is dangerous, and unholy. There are forces that are actively and deliberately undermining confidence in the law and the legal system. And we have a President that seems to think he is above the law, or that the law is something to play with for personal advantage.
It is no wonder that we are also deeply concerned about the Supreme Court, and how one party prevented another from naming a justice, and now the nominations have become deeply politicized, and seem to be about favoring the wealthy and powerful over the poor and vulnerable.
It is not my place to get into the politics of that, though I will say that to make a woman’s right to choose illegal is to violate Jewish religious beliefs that demand that the safety of the mother’s life must always come first.
But reading Devarim this week, I was reminded not of this side or that side, but of how in Judaism, it is so deeply important that we remember that law has the potential to be a holy thing in creating a just and harmonious society.
And perhaps that is why, after all, Moses begins his final speech to the people before they enter the holy land to set up their society based on a law and justice: perhaps that is why he starts by reminding the people of the importance of good, educated, and wise judges and fair courts, and adds this:
לֹֽא־תַכִּ֨ירוּ פָנִ֜ים בַּמִּשְׁפָּ֗ט כַּקָּטֹ֤ן כַּגָּדֹל֙ תִּשְׁמָע֔וּן לֹ֤א תָג֙וּרוּ֙ מִפְּנֵי־אִ֔ישׁ כִּ֥י הַמִּשְׁפָּ֖ט לֵאלֹהִ֣ים ה֑וּא
You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out low and high alike. Fear no man, for judgment is God’s.
Fear no one, for judgment is God’s.
He is not saying that we shouldn’t judge because God does, but rather that our ability to judge, to be fair, to be just is holy, is a great gift from God, as anyone who has lived in a place when the government fails and chaos ensues knows.
As we as Jews know only too well.
So as we go through the coming months of the confirmation of a Supreme Court Justice, and midterm elections that will in many be a referendum on the rule of law, let’s try not to get to wrapped up in our partisan blankets, seeing things only as a team sport.
Rather let’s remember our heritage, and the profound ethical and religious importance of fair laws applied fairly, to low and high alike. Let us pray that it is this respect for law that will guide us through the wilderness and back home.
Ken Y’hi Ratzon