Why Should Jews Celebrate a Torah That Calls for Genocide and Homophobia?

Rereading this holy book every year reminds us of the evolutionary nature of morality, and deters us from ever believing we have reached the pinnacle of moral rectitude.

Ayalon Eliach
Ayalon Eliach
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An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish boy points at a Torah scroll during the mourning ritual of Tisha B'Av at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Jerusalem's old city, Sunday, July 26, 2015.
An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish boy points at a Torah scroll during the mourning ritual of Tisha B'Av at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Jerusalem's old city, Sunday, July 26, 2015.Credit: AP
Ayalon Eliach
Ayalon Eliach

Calls for genocide. Instructions for how to manage sex slaves captured in battle. Death penalty for homosexuals. When you read these words, what comes to mind? ISIS? Boko Haram? Al Shabaab?

Keep thinking. Every year, Jews across the world gather weekly to read consecutive portions of the Torah, Judaism’s holiest text, which features the morally repugnant list above as well as many other offensive passages (genocide: Deuteronomy 20:16-17; sex slavery: Deuteronomy 21:10-13; death penalty for homosexuals: Leviticus 20:13). The completion of this annual reading cycle is celebrated on a holiday called Simhat Torah, which begins next week.

Is there any justification for Jews continuing to celebrate the completion of a book that reads in part like an instruction manual on how to be a terrible person?

The answer depends on how we approach the text. The Talmud states that the Torah can be a “deadly poison” or an “elixir of life” depending on the mindset of the person who studies it (Ta’anit 7a). For those who approach the Torah unquestioningly as a guidebook, these passages can, quite literally, be "deadly." One need not look further than the past few months: The ultra-Orthodox murderer at this year’s Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem and the fundamentalist Jews who burned a Palestinian family alive are chilling examples of what happens when people blindly follow the words of a book that advocates homophobia and genocide.

There is, however, another way to read the Torah -- one that turns it into an “elixir of life.” Under this approach, the Torah is not an instruction manual. Instead, it is a mirror that forces us to grapple with all of the beautiful, complicated and ugly parts of our humanity.

In addition to genocide, sex slavery and homophobia, the Torah contains deeply moral messages about pursuing justice (Deuteronomy 16:20), giving charity generously (Deuteronomy 15:7-8), and caring for the most vulnerable in society, like the stranger, the orphan and the widow (Exodus 22:20-22). By revisiting these drastically contrasting passages within the same holy book every year, we are forced to continually ask ourselves what our position is on these issues, to answer the very first question in the Torah: Where are you? (Genesis 3:9).

Through this process of continually questioning our moral framework, we ensure that we never become complacent with our own morality. On the most basic level, it is all too easy to assume that we have overcome our uglier human impulses. When we watch the news, we look at the racists, misogynists and homophobes and assure ourselves that we are nothing like them. Science has shown us, however, that we all carry around implicit biases. Only by confronting them and talking about them are we able to have the cognitive awareness to not act on them. Committing ourselves to continually rereading a document that forces us to address these issues instead of simply assuming that we are above them is one way of developing that awareness.

The second way the Torah helps us to continually grow morally is by reminding us of the evolutionary nature of morality. The Torah, like the U.S. Constitution, was not written with the goal of containing morally repugnant sections (both, for example, institutionalize slavery, whether systematically or through the Three-Fifths Compromise). Rather, these documents reflected the morality of the time. Through the course of history, our ethos has changed and many things that our society once considered repugnant have now become entirely acceptable, and vice versa. Confronting that moral evolution on a weekly basis serves as a warning to never be too complacent with the belief that we have reached the pinnacle of moral rectitude. It reminds us that our sense of right and wrong will also one day seem outdated. This pushes us to continually reflect on our own beliefs.

Given these two divergent approaches – one that leads to Torah becoming a “deadly poison” and the other, an “elixir of life” – how can we ensure that we are reading the Torah with the right mindset?

Rabbi Akiva (40-137 CE) taught us that to "Love your neighbor as yourself" is the greatest principle of the Torah (Sifra, Kedoshim 4:12). If we consistently test our reading of the Torah against this principle, it becomes a powerful tool for moral growth. After going through that process every week for an entire year, we come out a little bit wiser and more attuned to our own morality. The result is that we may approach the world with more loving-kindness. Now that is something worth celebrating.

Ayalon Eliach is a lawyer and a rabbinical student at Hebrew College. He holds a BA in Religious Studies from Yale University and a JD from Harvard Law School. He is passionate about using religion as a source of connection rather than separation in the world. He tweets at @Ayalon83.

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