We are all models

We are all models

Shoftim - Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

Be a Jew at home and a man on the street.” So went the famous advice of Judah Lieb Gordon (1831-1892), an early Hebraist, poet, and writer and a pioneer in what we call Haskalah, the 19th-century movement to harmonize Jewish tradition with Western culture.

His models were Moses Maimonides and Moses Mendelssohn (12th and 18th centuries, respectively), both of whom devoted lifetimes to integrating Judaism with the best of universalistic thought and culture. One of Mendelssohn’s disciples, Naftali Herz Wesseley (1725-­1805), called Judaism “the law of God” and society “the law of man.” How indeed do we balance the two?

On the one hand, we have A.E. Housman, whose poem “The laws of God, the laws of man” pleads for freedom from both. “Let God and man decree/ Laws for themselves and not for me;/ And if my ways are not as theirs/ Let them mind their own affairs.”

On the other hand is the classical Jewish position from talmudic times: Jewish law is mandated, but, “The law of the land is the law.” We aspire to follow both. Gordon’s issue was less Jewish law than it was Jewish custom that had become hardened into law: a separatist way of life that isolated Jews from full participation in Western culture. But broadly considered, he too was consumed with the challenge of remaining true to “the law of God” and “the law of man.”

We are neither Housman nor Gordon. “Blessed with the privilege of living in a pluralistic and open society,” says my colleague at Hebrew Union College, Dr. Lisa Grant, we can be likened to people sitting on a front porch, firmly attached to our Jewish home on one side but open to the world on the other.

Still, how exactly do we balance the two?

This week’s portion raises that question when it requires the king to write a mishneh torah, a “second torah” for private consultation. Rashi (following Talmud Sanhedrin 22a) explains, “One Torah is to be lodged back home, the other is to be carried around when the king goes out.”

What exactly is this “second torah”? Targum Onkelos is undoubtedly correct in identifying it as an exact copy of the law, not a restatement of it in some secondary fashion. The point is not to have two laws — one for home and the other for outside — but the very opposite: There should be no difference between how we act in private and how we appear in public.

But why the king? Why aren’t all Jews advised to keep copies of God’s law with them both at home and away? According to Abravanel, the king is singled out because he is a model. “People naturally emulate those great in stature,” he observes. In our time, however, it is not just the king whom people emulate: The obligation to act the same privately and publicly falls on everyone in a position to influence others.

Gordon had to contend with an insular Jewish world that denied him the freedom to adopt modern dress and language, let alone to enroll in college, attend concerts, or just go shopping. He would have agreed with Housman: “If my ways are not as theirs/ Let them mind their own affairs.” In any event, he won his battle, and we are the beneficiaries of his success.

But we have gone farther. We see no dichotomy between being Jewish and just plain human; the cause we champion is integration of the two. One cannot be properly religious without living up to the highest standards of human decency, we believe. We call that integrity.

The lack of religious integrity haunts religion today. A major kosher slaughtering establishment abuses illegal immigrants, haredi Israelis study Torah in a Jewish state but will not defend the state, a rabbi in Tzfat takes a racist stand on Arabs. Extremist religionists of all sorts demean women. We are long past the stage where we will accept this kind of hypocrisy.

Our religious leaders should lead one and the same exemplary life in public and in private. So should we — aren’t we all role models for someone or other? We can all use a mishneh torah, one copy of God’s law to carry with us and the very same set of standards for use back home.

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