I do not typically read through Torah portions in full. If I am interested in learning more about a specific story or portion, I usually turn to the internet for summaries or other brief commentaries of the text and its key messages.
A few weeks ago, though, I challenged myself to sit down and read B’har, the first of the two portions we read from the Torah this week, from start to finish. As I read through the full text line-by-line, I grew frustrated, particularly with this text, which explains the jubilee year:
It is from the nations round about you that you may acquire male and female slaves... These shall become your property: you may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time. Such you may treat as slaves. But as for your Israelite kin, no one shall rule ruthlessly over another (Leviticus 25:44-46).
From summaries, I knew that Leviticus tells us a jubilee year is celebrated every 49 years: all land purchased during the previous 49 years is to be returned to its original owners and all slaves acquired during the same period are to be freed. Nowhere in the summaries or conversations about this portion did I read or encounter a difference between Israelite and non-Israelite slaves. This piece of context feels vital—though uncomfortable—and yet was left out.
Is the Torah telling us that we could still own slaves as property in perpetuity, as long as they were not from our Israelite nation? Is the redemption of the jubilee year not granted to everyone? As I struggled to understand the passage, I thought to myself: This isn’t the Judaism I know. The Judaism I know believes everyone is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine image, and teaches us to build relationships with and help vulnerable populations, rather than contribute to the systems that oppress them.
Then I realized that when I read summaries of the Torah, I do not have to think about context. The process of considering the circumstances surrounding the text – to create a more complete picture and discover the larger message behind the words – has already been done for me. Such summaries also may, on occasion, shield me from having to confront the pieces of our sacred texts that are unpleasant and make me question, wonder, and even disagree.
In my work at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, I must always think about context. During the LGBTQ Rights program at our L’Taken Social Justice Seminars, I make it a point to teach students to consider context and interpretation when reading lines of text from Leviticus that often are used to justify the marginalization and oppression of LGBTQ people. I ask them to consider how we can evaluate the words, so they make sense today.
Similarly, although “gun control” was the phrase we used years ago to describe measures to promote gun safety, we now say “gun violence prevention,” which we believe better articulates what we are doing – working to prevent the devastating violence that results from firearms.
As our thinking around social justice issues continues to grow, our words and (or interpretations of them) and actions evolve accordingly. However, the values driving our work stay the same. My social justice efforts are strengthened when I consider the history and full picture of issues I care about. Only in this way can I understand the issue’s beginnings, so my values drive how I interpret this information and turn it into meaningful action.
I appreciate that reading the text of B’har directly – without a summary or interpretation – has led me to consider history, context, and our enduring Jewish values as they relate to the text. Writing this piece has required me to interpret the portion for myself, helping me realize that granting freedom to Jewish slaves during the jubilee year in the time of Leviticus was, in its own way, treating people with dignity and compassion – the same values I learned growing up as a Reform Jew. Although the way we think about slavery and issues of privilege now is quite different than ancient Israelites’ thinking about these topics, the values we strive to live by remain consistent with theirs. When I think about this, I feel even more connected to the words of the Torah and the Jewish people.