Through a web of seemingly disjointed scenarios, the Book of Deuteronomy is filled with large and small methodologies for preserving the possibility of ethical behavior even in the worst contexts. Ultimately, however, the text teaches that the very existence of the cosmos as God created it, and humanity within it, depends upon the details of our behavior.
Reading the Torah portion Ki Teitzei demands facing a battery of situations in which the average human being might not behave ethically, even in the smallest detail of life, and yet prescribes a way to be ethical nonetheless. In both inter-human relationships (bein adam l’chaveiro) and our relationship with God (bein adam laMakom) lie endless possibilities for behavior that maintains communal and cosmic order, as well as possibilities for its destruction. Are we partners with God in constructing and maintaining order in the world God created or will we ensure its self-destruction?
In Ki Teitzei, three main areas emerge for detailed legislation: communal and inter-personal relations; universal ethical responsibilities, and commitment to preserving the world as God created it.
1. Upholding an Ethical Society
Several examples exemplify the first area, many of which we might still consider relevant. Jealousy and concern for inheritance among half-siblings, competition between wives, and the anguish of parents of disobedient children are all contexts that we can understand, and about which the Torah portion speaks. The Deuteronomic voice tries to provide detailed solutions to these inter-human conflicts, and to be sure, from our modern Western perspective we might not agree with them. Yet the desire to create order where there is emotional chaos is a prime goal even when there are clear tensions between values. Other verses display the extent to which communal cohesion depends upon ethical co-responsibility: “If you see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your peer” (Deuteronomy 22:1). Responsibility to protect and to return lost property to one’s neighbor is central to this vision of how detailed prescribed behavior safeguards a society that strives toward the ethical. One’s neighbor’s property is to be guarded as carefully as one’s own. Similarly, the ongoing emotional sufferings of family members are also considered to be potentially destructive to ethical communal life. The ethical behavior of the community and the individual become the only real protections against absolute chaos in human society.
2. Universal Ethics: “The Face of the Other”
Universal human concern also underlies the Deuteronomist’s vision of an ethical world. Basic concern even for the enemy does not escape the Torah’s vision. When we enter into war, for example, we are commanded to protect the fundamental humanity of enemies, even when we have defeated and captured them (Deuteronomy 21:10ff). To be sure, one might imagine that the basic human response to war is to descend to the lowest levels of behavior. It is precisely this assumption about the human capacity to act with morality in every situation that these verses reject. The Torah claims that it is precisely when we are engaging in war that our moral sensibilities become most fragile and yet most essential. Being victorious in war does not grant us permission to become inhumanely insensitive to the pain we see in the faces of the victims, regardless of how “other” they appear to us. We are infinitely responsible to the other and to ease the suffering of the other. As the contemporary French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas taught, these are among the aspects of the Torah “which are there to ensure that a community whose members are practically face to face retains these interpersonal relations when its members turn their gaze toward humanity as a whole.”1
3. Preserving God’s Cosmos
It might seem predictable that the Torah would be concerned with how particular interpersonal and universal responsibility determines the fate of a universe, but our Sages struggled mightily to explain the ethical reasoning behind the following prescribed behavior in our Torah portion:
”If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fair well and have a long life.” (Deuteronomy 22: 6-7)
Similarly, our tradition has preserved practices emerging from the following verses as well, even when their purposes remain unclear:
“You shall not plow with an ox and an ass together. You shall not wear clothing combining wool and linen.” (Deuteronomy 22:10-11)
In the case of the former, “protecting” the mother bird from seeing her eggs or her young taken from their nest, many have argued that this is the very foundation of ethical sensibilities. Our concern for the natural world, for the animal kingdom, and our responsibility to maintain sensitivity helps preserve our humanity and our capacity for preserving the ethical. But one might also argue that these verses remind us of how humanity disrupts the natural order that God created, and that when we choose to do so, we must do so in ways that minimize the damage, and continue to train us ethically. So too with the later set of verses, the categories of Creation—of animal and plant life that God created—must be preserved, even to the finest detail of cloth. To be mindful of this order and to maintain it is to maintain a commitment to and responsibility for God’s Creation.
Mary Douglas,2 a world-renowned anthropologist, considers these examples of how the authors of the Bible sought to preserve God’s initial order of things, and to confirm our responsibility and liability to preserve God’s categories established in the Creation of the world. In order to prevent the long-term breakdown of the order of Creation, we must maintain these categories, even if it makes plowing our fields or manufacturing clothing less convenient. Even in the seemingly irrational or inconsistently symbolic rituals of preserving ancient fundamental categories of Creation, lies a system with grand aspirations.
In the ethical details of human behavior lies the potential of the person or the society to live out the ideals of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy sets out to build systematically not only the ideal society, but also the ideal human being. This human being is one with multiple ethical concerns for the communal and the universal other—the person or thing outside the self. Only then, only through these preliminary ethical concerns, can a human being join in preserving the existence of God’s cosmos.
1. “The Pact” originally published in L’Au-Dela du Verset in Paris, 1982; republished in The Levinas Reader, pp. 217-218
2. See Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (London/NY: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966)
Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Ph.D. serves Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion as the National Director of Recruitment and Admissions and Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought and Ethics. She was also named President's Scholar in 2013. Prior to this appointment, she served as Vice President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Rabbi Sabath earned a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary and has co-authored two books and published numerous articles in the Jerusalem Post, the Huffington Post, the Times of Israel and other venues. She is currently writing a book on covenant theology and co-editing a volume with Rabbi Rachel Adler, Ph.D. on ethics and gender.