Do Not Stand Idly By: Being A Jew Who Picks and Chooses

18 Sivan 5774

I recently found a wonderful article by Rabbi Maurice Harris on I’ve been struggling with the idea that you have to keep and observe every single one of the mitzvot or you are not a good Jew. But Rabbi Harris gives a really, REALLY good reason for rejecting some of the Leviticus laws that require us to be sexist, racist, or homophobic. He says:

“I acknowledge my disappointment and anger at the suffering these texts have wrought, and I believe that our ancestors were mistaken on this issue. Similarly, I respond to other passages in the Torah that advocate things that modern liberal Jews openly condemn (such as the passages in Numbers 31 in which God and Moses commanded the genocide of all Midianite men, women, and children).

“Yes, this makes me a religious Jew who “picks and chooses.” I believe that we have a moral responsibility to thoughtfully pick and choose, because as human beings we are all morally responsible for any harms we commit in the name of our religions. To quote a teacher of mine, “There is no ‘I was just following orders’ defense that excuses harms people inflict in the name of their religious beliefs.”

Now, Judaism has certainly carved out some exceptions to reduce harm that might be caused by religious beliefs. Pikuach nefesh deals with some of the mitzvot that are harmful for Jews in certain health situations, as well as prioritizing life over almost any of the mitzvot. I believe there is also a ruling somewhere that says that financial hardship is a reason not to perform certain mitzvot. And there’s definitely a rabbinic doctrine of human dignity before rules whenever possible.

But that is still a powerful, powerful – and true! – statement for Rabbi Harris to make. “I was just following orders” is not an excuse for following rules that harm real people, even if the orders supposedly came from G-d.

I don’t believe that it is a mitzvah to condemn someone for their gender, their gender identity, their sexual orientation or their race. I don’t believe that HaShem actually wants that. I believe that while many of our traditions are good and should be preserved, some of them are harmful and should be set aside. Keshet, the organization that is working for full equality for LGBT Jews, has a signature drive called Do Not Stand Idly By, a pledge to speak out against homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, and harassment in the Jewish community. (By the way, I urge you to sign it.)

I’m now going to switch to a discussion of Rabbi Kushner’s book How Good Do We Have To Be? that I referenced in another post, because Kushner also has some important things to say about this whole rule-bound thing.

I quote:

“To say that we are destined to lose G-d’s love or to go to Hell because of our sins is not a statement about us but about G-d, about the tentative nature of G-d’s love and the conditional nature of G-d’s forgiveness. It is a claim that G-d expects perfection from us and will settle for nothing less […] I strenuously reject [this idea]. If I am capable of forgiveness, of recognizing intermittent weakness in good people or good intentions gone astray in myself and others, how can G-d not be capable of at least as much?”

Too many times, people who cling to every rule teach us that everything about us is sinful, that we are sinners, that we are fundamentally wrong because we are not obeying each and every rule and performing every mitzvah perfectly. Kushner and Harris are both arguing against this “marriage to the rules” instead of “paying attention to the people” mindset; Harris by saying that there’s no “I was just following orders” defense for harming people through obeying rules, and Kushner pointing out that G-d does not demand that we be perfect in order to be loved.

Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, in his Orthodox-flavored tome Judaism for Everyone, points out that doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is better than doing the wrong thing for the right reasons:

“[J]udaism insists that one must do a good deed even if it stems from improper or insincere motivation. Refraining from doing a good deed because we question our intention is the piety of fools.”

Kushner also points out this important fact: Religion, at its best, does not exist to carp at us and make us feel inadequate, or guilty, or wrong. It exists (or should) to tell us that even in our imperfection we are welcome. Even in our flawed humanness, we are acceptable.

We have a choice between being self-righteous and taking comfort in being the ones who do everything perfectly and perform all the mitzvot and never transgress a commandment (as impossible as that probably is), or in being the ones who trip, make mistakes, do dumb things, fall down, and get up again and make amends. Certainly the idea is not to say “Well, I can’t even try to perform X mitzvah” – but it is important to recognize, I think, whether some mitzvot are also gemilut chasadim (acts of loving-kindness), or if they are simply relics of a time when the rules were more important than the people.

And then the question becomes: given the choice between following mitzvot that harm others (which, for me, is the same as standing idly by while our brothers’ blood is shed) or treating people with kindness, tolerance, and acceptance – well, which do you think is more important to HaShem in the long run? Which choice truly seeks to serve justice, show mercy, and walk humbly with our G-d?

I know my answer. Do you?


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