Religion is the source of most atrocities in the world. Religion makes us better people.
Well, which is it? You can look to almost any sacred text in any tradition, and find those passages that condone and even encourage violence. And you can also find those that compel us to strive to help others, and live more compassionately. Religious apologists often pretend that the texts of terror don’t exist. New atheists1 often pretend that the texts of compassion don’t.
It becomes harder to ignore one kind of text or the other when they are right next to each other. We find examples of both texts of terror and texts of compassion in this week’s Torah portion Mishpatim. On the one hand, we are instructed not to mistreat or taunt the stranger (Exodus 22:20). On the other, we are told that God will drive out the inhabitants of the Promised Land little by little (Exodus 23:30). (Later in Torah, the story is a bit modified in that we are the ones who will actually be doing the driving out. But nonetheless, point taken: the other nations must leave).
Love the stranger. Kill the nations. Parashat Mishpatim reminds us that our tradition isn’t as neat as we want it to be. But before we get discouraged that this renders religion largely useless, perhaps an even deeper truth lies within this juxtaposition.
When we are told not to harm the stranger, we are talking about one person. We have to watch out for one person. That sounds about right, doesn’t it? We have the capacity to hold compassion for a single individual. After all, we can know this person. One person has a face and a story. She may have made some missteps along the way, but she has a good soul. A single person is complicated, after all.
A group of people, however, is easier to write off. That group of people is violent. That group of people is lazy. That group of people is good at math. That group of people is (fill in the blank).
When we come face-to-face with a single individual, we can take in all of his or her complexities. When we face a group our capacity for compassion overloads, and we rely on the part of our brain that simplifies and categorizes. We may see a group, but we fail to see individual people.
A person is a story. People are statistics.
Parashat Mishpatim sets before us a choice: will we see people as the stranger we are obligated to protect, or will we group them together and see them as a collective that we are sanctioned to separate from for our own protection?
Both impulses exist. Both serve a purpose. In an open and pluralistic society, we may prefer the rhetoric of the stranger over the rhetoric of wiping out the other nations, but we cannot ignore our need for security. If we don’t embrace some preservationist tendencies, we leave ourselves vulnerable to attack. It’s a sad truth that our people know well.
But if preservation becomes the totality of our identity, what is it that we are preserving?
By placing these two commandments to care for the stranger and to destroy other nations so close in proximity, our tradition owns its contradictions.
It oversimplifies to claim that religion is all about compassion (as the apologists argue) or that religion is the primary reason for evil (as detractors do). And these extremes miss the point.
In most cases, we don’t need religion to tell us what is good and what is bad. We all know plenty of secular humanists who don’t need God to live moral lives.
Instead, I would argue that religion in general (and Judaism in particular) provides us with the context to wrestle with our own impulses. It lets us check our gut — to ensure that our gut isn’t misleading us in an increasingly complex world.
Judaism gives us the opportunity to check ourselves against millennia of tradition. Sometimes, we strive to be better than our ancestors. Sometimes, we have trouble just keeping up.
Our Torah functions less as an instruction manual and more as a mirror. We are compelled to look at ourselves in the context of a long conversation and to gauge how our voice will be heard not just today but in generations down the line.
In providing us with contradictory moral teachings, Parashat Mishpatim forces us to hold a mirror up to ourselves and ask not only how we want to relate to foreigners, but also who we want to be. Do we want to treat them as (we’re bid to treat) the stranger and come with compassion? Is it more prudent to see them as dangerous nations and circle the wagons? Can I learn something from the Sages that preceded me? Or does their perspective seem too limited to be helpful?
The answers don't come easily because the questions aren’t easy. But rather than congratulating ourselves for whatever initial decision our gut has made, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to hold up a mirror and engage with tradition as an opportunity to really look at ourselves. No religion is perfect. But religion can be extremely effective when we need to be reminded that we aren’t perfect either.
1. Note: I put “new atheists” in a very different category from the vast majority of secular humanists who simply find their spirituality and morality without the need for the concept of God. In my mind, new atheists embody exactly the same kind of simplistic fundamentalism that they rail against existing in religion.
Rabbi Sarah Bassin is the associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, in Beverly Hills, CA, and former executive director and board member of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.
Rabbi Bassin is right: religion provides us with the context to wrestle with our own impulses. Some of our instincts will easily align with our sacred texts; some will (and indeed should) be in stark contrast with our canon. Yet beyond the wrestling, it is important to note that there is also a reckoning — a moment of accountability for the action we ultimately choose to take. As background, in Exodus 21, near the beginning of Mishpatim, we find a section concerning damages incurred by both people and animals: what might happen, who is held responsible, and what restitution is owed.
While the Torah provides some limited detail within these guidelines, the matter of damages is exhaustively taken up in the Mishnah. The first two chapters of Bava Kama dig into various levels of responsibility that the owner of an animal takes on for harm caused by that animal. One major criterion for assessing the payment owed is whether the animal can be expected, simply by the nature of its species, to cause harm — or, whether that specific animal has been known to cause damages before. The term used is mu-ad or “warned.” For instance, a snake is always mu-ad, simply by virtue of being a snake (Mishnah Bava Kama 1:4) — whereas an ox is only considered mu-ad after goring a person (Mishnah Bava Kama 2:4). At the end of this discussion, we learn that a person is forever mu-ad — whether he or she causes damages inadvertently, purposely, when awake, or when asleep. There is no mechanism that can reduce a human being’s responsibility for the damages he or she causes!
Against this backdrop of unceasing accountability, we now return to our own reckoning with our texts. Our sacred bookshelf does indeed hold up a mirror to our own actions — but more than that, it demands an awareness of the consequences of our decisions. Whether we choose to act in accordance with or in opposition to our texts, we are forever mu-ad and have the obligation to walk in the world fully cognizant of the repercussions to our own actions.
Rabbi Megan Brudney is assistant rabbi at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, MI.
Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 566-592; Revised Edition, pp. 511-538
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 427-450
Shabbat Sh'kalim, Haftarah, II Kings 12:5-16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,647-1,648; Revised Edition, pp. 1,451-1,452