I know a lot of Jews. I grew up in Oak Park. I was in two and a half Jewish youth groups. You ask what was the half? I was in a boy scout troop at a synagogue, so we read about camping.
I was involved in Hillel at U of M. I became a rabbi.
I know a lot of Jews. I don't know a single Judeo.
Do any of you know any Judeos? That's remarkable because all we hear about is the Judeo-Christian tradition.
So what's a Judeo? I don't have the slightest idea. And it's kind of a made-up thing to some extent. I appreciate being included, but this has very profound implications about what goes on in our country.
The Old Testament and the Hebrew Bible are two completely different books that have the exact same words. It's not what they say — it's how you understand them. And the Jewish approach to the world is very very different from other approaches to the world.
We have, even within Jewish tradition — you may have heard this — we occasionally disagree with each other. And some of you are saying, No we never do that! We have profoundly different approaches as a Jewish people than we do from other traditions within this country.
For example, the concept of an illegitimate child. In Jewish law, there's no such thing as an illegitimate child. The parents may not have been married to each other, but the child is legitimate. It's a real child. You can divorce your partner — you cannot divorce your child. Your obligation to your child are exactly the same as whether you're married to the other parent or not. And even if you were never married, you have an obligation. You can't opt out of that particular responsibility.
We have different views on when life begins. In Jewish tradition, a person does not have full human rights until they're born. It's not the moment of conception — it's the moment of birth. (There used to be an old joke about how jews are not considered viable until they graduate med school.)
But in Jewish tradition, the mother has full rights for her life and, until the child is born, it's not even called a child. During the pregnancy, we do not refer to that as a child. It becomes a child when it's born.And we have different views about when the life of the mother is in danger or if the mother was coerced.
We have profoundly different views — again within the Jewish world there are
different ideas — but part of what's important is that, nowhere in Jewish law, are there penalties to the mother over this. There may be profoundly different ideas of what is the right thing to do, but in Jewish law we don't legislate them. We don't penalize the person for the decisions they are making.
So if you talk about the Judeo-Christian tradition? I know even within Christianity, there are profoundly different ideas, but I'm not a spokesperson for Christianity, so I don't want to make presumptions. But I know in Jewish tradition, there are vastly different approaches.
And there are laws being made that could encroach on our religious rights. And we're starting to see this actually in in Europe now — there have been a number of laws which actually affect the Muslim community as well over ritual slaughter of animals, of shechita, of making the animal kosher.
Now some of these countries are saying they want to make sure that everything is as painless as possible for the animal and that the laws of kashrut and halal violate that. But ironically they don't ban hunting. Hunting is a hundred percent permitted — all these countries don't want to talk about whether hunting is okay or not okay, though in Jewish tradition, that's not what we do because again, we want the animal to suffer as little as possible.
But in Europe, if they're making laws that say we're banning an aspect of ritual, which is part of your day-to-day life, part of your diet, but not banning something that actually harms animals far more — don't tell me this is about the animal.
This is about the outsider. This is about the one who is vulnerable.
That's why in Jewish law, what we focus on far more than legislating behaviors — again we can have disagreements about what those behaviors are, but we we don't primarily legislate behaviors — what we legislate is taking care of people who are the most vulnerable in a society, of taking people who are at risk and providing for them and to making sure that they are safe and that they are healthy.
Judaism really has a built-in separation between church (or shul) and state. You can see this in the Torah portions. Acharei Mot is the laws given to Aaron, which is really about the ritual life, about the sacrifices. And Kedoshim is Moses — about the moral and the economic laws. No one person has both all the ritual and all the moral laws together. They have to work together, but no one has all the power.
Judaism understands that we tend to do better in places where there are separations of power — where no one religious sensibility has dominance over the other. And so if you see things in the Torah portion this week, it was things like leaving the edges of the field — and it doesn't say for the poor. It doesn't judge people who are going to take the food. It just says leave the corners, leave the sides of your field, so people can get the food they feel they need — not what you feel that they need. That food doesn't belong to the owner of the field. You're allowed to own the field, but the corners do not belong and the gleanings either. You're allowed to harvest over once, but you have to leave behind.
It does say specifically for those who are poor about the vineyards because that's about the production of wine. Very often we say we will allow poor people to have subsistence levels, but they shouldn't have nice things. We decide — we act in loco parentis of those who are poor and disadvantaged — saying that they can't make good decisions for themselves about what kind of lives they want to live.
That's why the Torah says, no — even people who are poor, even people who are disenfranchised are entitled to what we would consider to be a luxury like wine because it's part of what makes you feel human. It's part of what gives you hope and optimism. It's part of what makes you feel connected to society again. It's not about judging the person's life. It's about enriching the person's life — making sure that they have the dignity, that they have the resources in order to live.
When the Temple was destroyed and we couldn't do the sacrifices, our rabbis chose helping each other over bringing back the Temple. When it came down to which one you kept — was it shul or state? — they kept state, in the sense of the laws of compassion, the laws of kindness, the laws of not judging or condemning other people based on their behaviors
Now we have to keep in mind that this is not just about America, but this is about Israel as well. In Israel, Jews are the majority and have to make sure that everyone there has religious freedom — not only to practice the way they want, but not to be coerced.
There has to be an understanding that in a country that calls itself a democracy, it's going to honor people of every faith and those who don't have faith as well. That in Judaism, Jewish life should be an example not a coercion. And you will have far more people interested in a Judaism that is modeled more than forced upon. And a lot of people in Israel are not Jewish. There is a higher percentage of Muslims in Israel than Jews in America.
And there is an obligation — again if we're going to call ourselves a democracy — there has to be this sense of protection. Our Torah reading ends with the idea that you have to do all these rules and all these laws in a way that makes us worthy of God. In fact, God is only God when we act in a kind and compassionate and non-judgmental way.
We can have profoundly deep disagreements over when does life begin, when does life end. But we're not allowed to punish or coerce each other over that. That's between the person and God — not between the person and the government.
Judaism wants us to focus more on what can we do for others — what can we do to help a kinder, juster society where everyone can feel they belong — far more than acting like we are God.
Rabbi Aaron Bergman is a rabbi at Adat Shalom Synagogue.