Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Parshat Yitro: The 12 Tables

The Roman Plebians were sick of being abused by the Patricians and demanded more power in governing the city. Around 462 BCE Terentilius — who was the Plebian Tribune at the time — advocated for a written set of laws that would govern Roman citizens.

Until that time, laws had been a combination of whatever custom, tradition and the ruling judge (always a Patrician) decided. Nobody could even know if they were being treated fairly by the law because nobody knew exactly what the law was. Terentilius wanted the laws to be written down to give greater protection to all.

The Patricians eventually (in 450 BCE) agreed to the Plebian demands request. A group of 10 men, known as the Decemvirate were selected to draw up the laws. According to Livy the 10 men went first to Greece to study Athenian laws and those of other cities.

On their return the men of the Decemvirate drew up their laws, which were written on 12 bronze tables placed in the forum, so that they were accessible to all.

The tables themselves were destroyed and we only know some of what they contained from later sources. But we do know that they focused mainly on civil laws between private citizens, including land ownership rights, inheritance rights and damages. They also included some religious laws. The worst punishment (the death penalty) was reserved for those who corrupted the legal system — judges who took bribes and witnesses who gave false testimony.

Rome was not the first state to have written laws, but these tablets were influential for generations. They formed the basis of Roman law for centuries after and Roman students were taught to memorize them in school. In fact, these laws influenced the men who drafted the US Constitution and also form the basis of common law which is still part of our legal system today.

This foundation of the Roman legal system was compiled some 900 years after the Ten Commandments were given to the Israelites, according to the Torah’s chronology. But some 600-900 years before our record of how the Rabbis of the Mishna and Talmud viewed the Ten Commandments and their place in the Jewish legal system.

In contrast with the Twelve Tables, which were placed publicly in the Forum for all to see, the two tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments were sealed in the Ark of the Covenant, which was never opened. The Ark itself was hidden away in the holiest part of the Tabernacle (and later the Temple) and only seen on one day of the year by only one person (the High Priest). In the Second Temple era the Ark was no longer there, having been either placed in a hidden and forgotten chamber deep within the Temple,or taken to Ethiopia by Solomon’s son.

The Twelve Tables came at the insistence of the people and were drawn up by a group of men. The Torah describes how the Ten Commandments were given by God and not only were they unasked for but according to rabbinic tradition the Israelites has to be forced to accept them.

The contrast between these two foundations of legal system is stark but the truth is that the prophets and rabbis removed virtually all meaning from the Ten Commandments.

Many of the prophets railed against the Jewish people for not observing the Torah and for not behaving correctly. None of them mentioned the Ten Commandments specifically in their criticisms of the people (though they did complain that the Jews were not keeping various commandments included in the Ten, along with other commandments that were not being kept).

Then the third century sage Rabbi Simlai stated (Makkot 23b) that the Israelites did not receive 10 commandments at Sinai but 613. (Medieval rabbis who listed the 613 all agreed that the number of Torah laws is actually far higher than that, and there are even more rabbinic laws). The Talmud (Makkot 24a) then lists other rabbis who seek out the most essential Commandments, reducing the list from 11 until eventually deciding on the single commandment of, “The righteous shall live by his faith,” (Habakkuk 2:4). None of the rabbis thought that the classic 10 were the most essential laws.

Not only did the rabbis ignore the Ten Commandments when listing the most essential laws but they also redefined them to remove their plain meaning. For example, “Do not steal,” (Exodus 20:12) is interpreted to mean “Do not kidnap” (Sanhedrin 86a). Theft is still biblically forbidden but is not one of the Ten.

Others, like the commandments to observe the Sabbath or honor one’s parents have become the subjects of vast collections of intricate laws which go well beyond (and sometimes contradict) the plain meaning of the words.

By the mishnaic period the Ten Commandments were reduced from a legal code to a prayer in the daily service (similar to the Shema). But then, in response to the rise of Christianity, the rabbis removed the Ten Commandments from prayer too (Berachot 12a).

So although representations of the Two Tablets appear in synagogues and court rooms, the Ten Commandments are virtually insignificant as a legal code.

Unlike the Roman tablets which are almost forgotten yet still impact our laws, the Ten Commandments are extremely well known, yet have very little influence on the Jewish legal system.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Parshat Beshalach: The Green Book

The “Green Book” won several awards at the Golden Globes last week, including “Best Motion Picture.” The movie, set in 1960, tells the story of the relationship between an African-American classical pianist and the Italian-American bouncer he hires to drive him on a concert tour through the racially divided deep south.

The movie’s title comes from an annual directory published by and named for Victor Hugo Green which listed hotels, stores and gas stations that welcomed African Americans. The full title of the directory was “The Negro Motorist Green Book” and it was published every year from 1936-1966. The guide, which was almost forgotten over the decades, was essential in the era of racial segregation, enforced by legislation known as the Jim Crow laws.

These laws, upheld by the Supreme Court, maintained racial segregation in all public facilities in the southern states of the US. The court ruled that Jim Crow did not violate the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution — which ensured equal protection” to all people — by invoking the doctrine of “separate but equal.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made racial discrimination illegal, but until that time the Green Book was a valuable guide for African-American motorists at a time when the relative low cost of motoring meant that many Americans took to the roads, especially those looking to escape the racism and segregation they experienced on public transport.

However, driving across America was not easy for people of color when many gas stations, hostels, restaurants and stores refused to serve them. Even finding a public bathroom was sometimes difficult. Many African-American travelers were forced to pack not only food for their journey, but also carry spare fuel and sometimes even a portable toilet. And if the car broke down, it was sometimes almost impossible to find a mechanic who would fix it for them. There were also thousands of so-called “sundown towns,” which barred non-whites after dark (one of which features in the movie).

This was why Green’s guide became invaluable. In the introduction to the 1949 edition he wrote, “With the introduction of this travel guide in 1936, it has been our idea to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.”

Green was a postal worker from Harlem, New York, and he published 15,000 copies of his guide each year. He said the inspiration for his guide came from similar Jewish publications.

The Jewish press has long published information about places that are restricted and there are numerous publications that give the gentile whites all kinds of information.

Jews continued to face discrimination when Green launched his guide, though the peak of anti-Semitism in the US was in the 1920s. That decade may have heralded in the age of motoring, but the American father of the motorcar, Henry Ford, was an avowed anti-Semite who blamed the Jews for World War I (and for almost everything else). In 1924, the government passed the Johnson–Reed Act, effectively severely limiting immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe. The Ku Klux Klan, newly reformed in 1915, claimed 4-5 million members by the 1920s. Hatred of Jews in America was widespread.

In response, Jews created their own philanthropic societies, their own hotels and resorts, their own lobbying groups, and their own guides to where Jews were welcomed. By the 1960s, Jews were at the forefront in the fight against discrimination of all kinds, and were among the founders and early funders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

According to a PBS show, Jews were at the heart of the fight against Jim Crow.

The American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and the Anti-Defamation League were central to the campaign against racial prejudice. Jews made substantial financial contributions to many civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, the Urban League, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. About 50 percent of the civil rights attorneys in the South during the 1960s were Jews, as were over 50 percent of the Whites who went to Mississippi in 1964 to challenge Jim Crow Laws.

Jews knew that those who discriminated against minorities were the same people who hated Jews. The Jews of American felt that standing up for minorities was not only the right thing to do morally, but also the best way of combatting anti-Semitism.

The truth is, however, that anti-Semitism, the hatred of Jews, began millennia ago, in an incident we read in this week’s Torah portion.

After the Israelites miraculously left Egypt, everyone thought they were invincible. The Torah describes how they split the Red Sea, defeated Pharaoh’s army, and were guided by a column of fire and a pillar of smoke. Nobody in their right mind would have challenged the Israelites at the peak of their power.

Yet along came the tribe of Amalek and attacked the people, as they wandered through the desert. “And Amalek came and warred with Israel in Rephidim” (Exodus 17:8).

Amalek was not threatened by the Jews, who were heading to the Land of Canaan. The Jews had no resources that Amalek wanted or needed. How did their leader inspire the Amalekites to fight what must have seemed a suicidal war? Did he encourage them to fight by claiming that the Israelites were “criminals, drug dealers, and rapists” (or whatever was the equivalent at that time)? What other methods did he use to get his supporters to destroy themselves in order to get rid of the Israelites?

Amalek fought against the Israelites for no reason other than a hatred of Jews. Their war with Israel was the precursor to an eternal war against the Jews fought by those who hate Jews, as the verse states (Exodus 17:16):

He said, ‘For his hand is on the throne of God, there is a war between God and Amalek from generation to generation.’

Amalek was one single tribe that were wiped out thousands of years ago. But Amalek’s spiritual heirs, who continue to hate the Jews, remain strong to this day.

In 1948, Green wrote, “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.”

Things have improved in so many ways in the US for minorities, but there is still a long way to go. Though discrimination based on race is now illegal, hatred of minorities is still widespread on social media and political rhetoric. The Green Book is no longer published and is almost forgotten. But the hatred of those who are different in the color of their skin, their religion or their ethnicity remains strong in some circles.

The last line of the introduction in the 1937 edition of the Green Book states, “Let’s all get together and make motoring better.” This message is equally relevant now, though I would alter it to read, “Let’s all get together to make the entire world better.”

With thanks to the wonderful podcast 99% Invisible for the inspiration behind this d’var Torah.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Parshat Bo: The power of youth

For more than a hundred years, from the end of the fifth century BCE, the Spartan army was the supreme fighting force in the ancient world.

The Spartans were not known for their advances in science, technology or medicine. Apart from the Chilon in the 6th century BCE (who was renowned as one of the Seven Sages of Greece), Sparta produced no philosophers. But in the field of war they excelled more than anyone else. The culture of Sparta was totally focused on military training and creating the best fighting force in the world.

Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War I:10) referred to the Sparta by its ancient name of Ladaeaemon when he wrote:

For I suppose if Lacedaemon were to become desolate, and the temples and the foundations of the public buildings were left, that as time went on there would be a strong disposition with posterity to refuse to accept her fame as a true exponent of her power. And yet they occupy two-fifths of Peloponnese and lead the whole, not to speak of their numerous allies without.

From the age of 7, Spartan boys would leave their homes and enter the agoge system where they were beaten, starved and often died, but where they were trained in the art of war. At the age of 20 they would enter the military, where they would continue to serve until they reached the age of 60. Unusually for the ancient world, girls also received an education, and were comparatively well cared for, so that they could give birth to and raise the finest soldiers. Spartan women lived longer than their counterparts in other Greek cities, most likely because they were well fed and in better health.

Everything in Spartan society was focused on having the finest army and encouraging the best fighters. When Spartans died, only soldiers who had died in battle or women who died in childbirth were entitled to have marked headstones.

Although life was extremely tough for boys between the ages of seven and 20, it was even more dangerous for Spartan babies. Shortly after birth, a mother would bathe her child in wine to see if he was strong. If he survived, he was brought by his father to the Gerousia, the council of elders, who decided whether the baby was fit enough to be raised. Any child considered deformed or puny was thrown to its death into a chasm on Mount Taygetos known as Ceadas (interestingly, the modern name for Taygetos is Mount Profitis Ilias, named for the prophet Elijah). Some modern scholars argue that babies were not thrown into the chasm but were instead left to die on the mountainside.

For the Spartans, children had no intrinsic value in their own right. They became honorable and important only once they reached adulthood and were able to fight.

In this week’s Torah reading, Pharaoh challenges Moses about the role of children in religious, communal life.

Even though Moses was planning on leading the Israelites out of Egypt for good, he told Pharaoh they wanted to go to the desert to celebrate a festival. Rabbenu Bahya explains that Moses was alluding to the festival of Shavuot, when the Israelites stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah.

Pharaoh, convinced by his servants that he had no option but to allow the Jews to leave, told Moses and Aharon, “Go worship the Lord, your God. Who are those who are going?” (Exodus 10:8).

Moses replied:

With our youths and our elderly we shall go; with our sons and our daughters, with our flocks and our herds we shall go, for it is a festival of God for us. (Exodus 10:9)

Pharaoh scoffed at the idea of allowing the children to go to worship God at a festival. “So be it, may God be with you, when I will send you and your children,” he said. “Look that evil lies before you. Not so. Please go the men and worship God, for that is what you are requesting” (Exodus 10:10-11).

At the simplest level, the verse shows that Pharaoh was afraid the Israelites would leave and never return. So he insisted on keeping the children as hostages.

However, Ramban explains in his commentary, that the argument between them was about the role of children in rituals and religion. Moses said that even the children had to take part in the festival, whereas Pharaoh said that worship was only for adults and not for children.

In Pharaoh’s defense, when the children of Jacob left Egypt to bury their father in Israel — which was itself a kind of ritual — they left their young behind in Egypt (Genesis 50:7-8).

And Joseph went up to bury his father, and with him went up all Pharaoh’s servants the elders of his house and all the elders of Egypt. And all the house of Joseph and his brothers and his father’s house. Only their children, their flocks and their sheep they left in the land of Goshen.

But perhaps Pharaoh shared the world view of the Spartans — that children had no intrinsic value. And perhaps he went a step further in saying that they had no part to play in worshiping God.

Yet at Mount Sinai it was specifically the children who offered the sacrifices, not the adults. “And he sent the youths of the Children of Israel and they offered offerings and sacrifices peace sacrifices to God, of bulls” (Exodus 24:5).

The idea that the children would offer sacrifices remained shocking to the Greek world even hundreds of years after Moses and the Spartans. The Talmud (Megillah 9a) relates that when Ptolemy ordered the rabbis to translate the Torah into Greek, one of the alterations they made was to change the phrase from “sent the youths” to “sent the elect” so as not to offend the Greeks or lead them to disparage Judaism.

It is fundamental to Judaism that children are included in the rituals and worship. The Torah stresses that once every seven years all the Jews must gather in Jerusalem: “The men, the women the children and the converts, in order that they may hear and in order that they may learn, and fear the Lord, your God, and observe and do all the words of this Torah,” (Deuteronomy 31:12).

This is the message that Moses delivered to Pharaoh shortly before leading the Israelites to their freedom.

Cross posted from Times of Israel.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Parshat Vaera: The Power of Two

Even non-Americans like me have heard of Paul Revere and his famous midnight ride during the American Revolution, even if they don’t know the actual meaning of Longfellow’s famous line, “One if by land, and two if by sea.” But far fewer people have ever heard of William Dawes, who made the same midnight ride, and was even more audacious than Revere in getting past the British.

In fact, I suspect that the only place people may have heard of Dawes is in “The Tipping Point,” where Malcolm Gladwell contrasts his failure with Revere’s success.

Gladwell uses Revere as a paradigm of a “connector” who can take an idea and turn it into an epidemic. He writes:

“When he died, his funeral was attended, in the words of one contemporary newspaper account, by ‘troops of people.’ He was a fisherman and a hunter, a cardplayer and a theater-lover, a frequenter of pubs and a successful businessman. He was active in the local Masonic Lodge and was a member of several select social clubs. He was also a doer, a man blessed — as David Hackett Fischer recounts in his brilliant book Paul Revere’s Ride — with an ‘uncanny genius for being at the center of events.’”

In contrast, nobody is certain what happened to Dawes after his midnight ride. Adding insult to injury, in 2007, it was discovered that he may not even be buried in his marked grave in Boston’s King’s Chapel Burying Ground, but may actually be buried five miles away with his wife.

Yet he was as much a patriot as Revere and played an equally important role in the revolutionary war.

While Revere was a silversmith, Dawes was a tanner. Both would have had a large number of contacts and connections. Dawes was so dedicated to independence that he boycotted British goods — the Boston Gazette stated that at his wedding, he wore a suit made entirely in America.

Like Revere and Dr Joseph Warren, who sent both messengers, Dawes was a Freemason. He had built up a large network of military connections. In October 1774, he led a group who brazenly stole two cannons from a British arsenal while the British soldiers were out at roll call. He often went out recruiting supporters for the colonial cause, sometimes taking his granddaughter with him, so that the British would not suspect he was up to anything untoward.

On the night of April 18, 1775, while Revere rowed across the Charles River in a boat, the 30-year-old Dawes was charged by Warren on the more dangerous overland route from Boston to Lexington to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams of the impending British invasion. His path required him to pass through a British-guarded checkpoint at Boston neck. Nobody knows for certain how he managed to get past the sentries, but it is likely that he had cultivated friendships with them for some time, preparing for just such an eventuality.

So why is Revere so famous while Dawes has been so forgotten (or maligned on the rare occasion he is mentioned)?

It is true that Revere knocked on doors along his journey to Lexington, waking the revolutionary soldiers and preparing them for the invasion, whereas Dawes rode directly to Hancock and Adams without stopping along the way (and, ironically, he was still beaten by Revere, who had a faster horse and a shorter route, and so was able to deliver the message before Dawes arrived). So, far fewer people were aware of Dawes’s daring ride.

But more likely Dawes was forgotten and Revere remembered due to the power of the written word. Dawes did not leave a record of his heroism, whereas Revere wrote three accounts of his ride, the last written 23 years after the event in a letter to Jeremy Belknap, Secretary of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

And probably the most important reason that Dawes was forgotten by history is due to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s historically inaccurate poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride.”

Gladwell praises Revere and derides Dawes, writing: “This chapter is about the people critical to social epidemics and what makes someone like Paul Revere different from someone like William Dawes.” But one could equally argue that Revere’s fame was not because he was a better connector than Dawes, but simply because he got better coverage after the fact.

In contrast to the famous Revere and the forgotten Dawes, the Torah goes to great lengths to stress that the two revolutionary leaders who took the Israelites out of Egypt had different roles, yet were equals.

Moses was the chosen leader, but it was Aaron who was the social “connector” who could speak to both the downtrodden slaves and to Pharaoh. Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s palace, then fled the country, only to return decades later, at God’s command. In contrast, Aaron spent his entire life strengthening bonds between himself and others. Whereas Moses represented strict application of the law, described as “Let the judgment pierce the mountain,” (Midrash Shochar Tov on Psalms 90), Aaron embodied, “Love peace and pursue peace, love people and bring them close to Torah,” (Pirkei Avot 1:12).

Moses acknowledged his own shortcomings and God informed him that he could only succeed alongside his brother (Exodus 6:12-13).

Moses spoke before God saying, ‘Behold the Children of Israel did not listen to me, so how will Pharaoh listen to me?… So God spoke to Moses and Aaron and commanded them about the Children of Israel and about Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to take the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.,

In the following chapter (Exodus 7:1-2) the Torah makes it even more clear that their mission could only succeed with Aaron being the one to spread the word.

God said to Moses, see I have placed you as a god for Pharaoh, but Aaron your brother will be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and Aaron your brother will speak to Pharaoh…

At some point, Moses found his voice and was able to speak directly to Pharaoh, and later on was also able to speak to the fledgling Jewish nation, becoming the law-bearer who informed them of all God’s decisions. And Aaron became an important figure in his own right, as the High Priest, such that he and his descendants had the task of acting as intermediaries between God and the Jewish people in the Temple rituals. The Torah stresses (Exodus 6:26-27) that both brothers were equally important, referring to them as a single person and switching the order of their names to show their co-leadership.

He is Aaron and Moses to whom God said, ‘Take the Children of Israel out of the land of Israel in their multitudes. They are the ones who speak to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to take the Children of Israel from Egypt; he is Moses and Aaron.

But at the outset of their revolution, neither could have done it without the other.