By Rabbi Yaakov (Jack) Bieler

Written for Parashat Mishpatim 5762/2002

The events of September 11th have by now permanently seared into the collective consciousnesses of people around the world. However, for those of us who take religion seriously and view the spiritual lifestyle as the cornerstone of our day­‐to­‐day activities, the terrorist acts in New York and Washington have been uniquely disturbing. Many of us return again and again to the question of whether our own religious traditions can possibly generate within our own co­‐religionists, or even ourselves, the attitudes and actions that were carried out by Osama bin Laden and his followers. In a new introduction to a reissue of his book exploring the relationship between violence and religion, Mark Juergensmeyer writes,

In 1980, the U.S. State Department roster of international terrorist groups listed scarcely a single religious organization. In 1988 Us Secretary of State Madeline Albright listed thirty of the world’s most dangerous groups; over half were religious. They were Jewish, Moslem and Buddhist.1

And indeed, Chapter 3 of Juergensmeyer’s book discusses manifestations of traditions who have embraced hatred and violence as an extension of their religious beliefs. Despite the fact that, thankfully, the number of Jews who have actually carried out violent activities is extremely low, particularly when compared to the adherents of other religions around the world who have planned and carried out acts of brutality, it is nevertheless important to draw attention to Jewish primary sources that unambiguously call for a very different attitude as well as course of action. If we have a sense that an increasing number of Orthodox Jews are becoming more and more hostile and prejudiced towards those with whom they differ, it is important to stress the elements within our revered tradition, that in addition to obviously encouraging our safety and defense, equally urge us to maintain a positive, embracing and supportive approach towards the other members of the societies in which we may happen to reside.

Two very important chapters of the Jewish Oral Tradition are to be found in Tractate Gittin. Chapters 4 and 5 of this section of the Talmud discuss Rabbinic legislation that is categorized as Tikkun Olam (improving the world), the improvement of the quality of life of the members of the community, and Darchei Shalom (ways of peace), engendering among individuals who might otherwise engage in contentious, competitive behavior, a spirit of calm and cooperation. Examples of the latter category appearing in Chapter 5, Mishna 8 include: a) a fixed protocol for the assignation of honors associated with being called to the Tora during synagogue services;2 b) determining a precedent for determining the location of an Eiruv Chatzeirot;3 c) standardizing the sequence for filling private irrigation pools when diverting the water of the local river; and d) allowing even non­‐Jewish poor to participate in gleaning fields owned by Jews, who are commanded to leave Leket, Shikcha and Peah.4 These examples represent diverse forms of social interaction5 that require intercession by communal leadership in order that the individuals comprising the society not be torn apart due to internecine and petty jealousies and differences. In Talmud Gittin 59b, Abaye asks, if with respect to the issue of the order of those being called to the Tora, Kohanim are required to receive preference based upon the Written Tradition in VaYikra 21:8 stating that they will be “sanctified”, why would the Mishna present this as an example of the Rabbinic legislation designed to achieve “the ways of peace” and not an application of a clear Tora ordinance? R. Yosef responds: While the idea of calling the Kohen to the Tora before a Levi or Yisrael, is of Tora origin, the basis for the statement about the special status of Kohanim is a manifestation of the principle of pursuing the “ways of peace”. In other words, R. Yosef is suggesting that the Mishna is providing the Tora’s rationale for this particular commandment, turning the practice of according a privilege accorded Kohanim as an example of a Mishpat rather than a Chok.6 R. Yosef then adds: In fact, the entire Tora is designed to promote peace, as we are told in Mishlei 3:17 “Deracheha Darchei Noam VeChol Netivoteha Shalom” (its ways are ways of pleasantness and all of its paths are peace). R. Walter Wurtzberger7 cautions against making too much of R. Yosef’s comment:

This Talmudic passage itself can hardly be construed as evidence for (a) pan­‐ ethical approach to Judaism, which in the spirit of Kant, would regard religion as the handmaiden or ethics and reduce the entire scope and function of religion to serve as a means or promoting ethical values.

Nevertheless, I would argue that it would be fair to claim that if the manner in which a Jew practices religion, rather than engendering a greater sense of peace and Godliness, leads instead to disrespect and insensitivity, the individual has missed the point of the very life he so vociferously appears to advocate and promote.

Parashat Mishpatim presents two commandments that will surely challenge those who find it difficult to approach with kindness individuals who differ significantly from themselves. In contrast to Sefer Devarim in which the same directives are listed in a form that is easily realized by the average individual —

Devarim 22:1,4

Thou shalt not see “Achicha” (thy brother’s) ox or his sheep driven away, and hide thyself from them; thou shalt surely bring them back unto thy brother. Thou shalt not see thy brother’s ass or his ox fallen down by the way (as a result of its heavy burden), and hide thyself from them; thou shalt surely help him to lift them up again.

Sefer Shemot raises the bar considerably higher:

Shemot 23:4­‐5

If thou meet “Oyivcha” (thine enemy’s) ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it back to him again.

If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lying under its burden, thou shalt forbear to pass by him; thou shalt surely release it with him.

The Midrash Halacha on Shemot, Mechilta,8 lists Rabbinic opinions regarding the nature of the enmity between the parties reflected in these commandments:

a) This is a Jewish idolater, in the words of R. Yoshia…;

b) R. Eliezer says that the verse refers to a convert who has reassumed his earlier ways;

c) R. Yitzchak says that the Tora is referring to a Jewish apostate;

d) R. Nathan says that the verse describes someone who has struck your child or with whom you have had a disagreement, resulting in his becoming his enemy, at least temporarily.

While the former opinions attempt to lend some objectivity to why these individuals are hostile to one another, R. Nathan posits that the ill­‐feelings can be the result of extremely petty, insignificant, even fleeting differences of opinion. The Midrash Halacha on Devarim, Siphre #225,9 interprets the apparent inconsistency between the two versions of these commandments in Shemot and Devarim, when it states, “this is to teach the Tora is challenging the Yetzer HaRa (the evil inclination)”. In other words, one should even try to help someone whom one does not like more than someone with whom he feels a close connection because of the moral lesson that is inherent in such an action, i.e., you help people in need regardless of your feelings about them. Consequently, according to R. Nathan, it would be terribly misguided if based upon certain feelings of hatred and enmity, religious individuals would then generalize and presume that our tradition justifies and encourages distance from and even intolerance for all who differ from ourselves, whether they represent other denominations, religions, cultures and/or lifestyles .

Ideally, religious leaders of all persuasions should universally urge their congregants to engage in peaceful activities, rather than fulminate bigotry and hatred in the Name of God. Only in this manner will the Rabbinic comment in Berachot 64a eventually become a true reality:

Said R. Eliezer in the name of R. Chanina: Religious scholars increase peace in the world, as it is said, (Yeshayahu 54:13) “And all Your Children will be students of HaShem, and Your Children will have peace”—don’t read “Ba’Nayich” (Your Children) but “Bo’Nayich” (Your Builders).

Hopefully that day will come sooner rather than later.


1. Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, U. of California Press, Berkeley, 2000, p. 6.

2. Unless there was a clear­‐cut regimen that called for first a Kohen, then a Levi, followed by Yisraelim, the Rabbis were fearful that feuds and ill­‐feeling would regularly be associated with the Tora reading portion of the public prayer service.

3. In order to create the legal fiction that a courtyard is to be viewed on Shabbat as a single private domain, thereby allowing for all residents whose houses open onto the courtyard to carry, each household brings food to a single, previously agreed­‐upon house. Once such a house has been designated, it is to remain as the location for the Eiruv for that Shabbat, unless some dire circumstances necessitate a change. This was designed to avoid squabbling among the various homeowners as to whose house would be declared the religious center on a particular Shabbat.

4. See VaYikra 19:9­‐10 and Devarim 24:19­‐20. Leket is a term referring to certain minimal amounts of the harvest which fieldworkers inadvertently dropped as they were collecting stalks of grain; Shikecha is defined as minimal amounts of stalks that were inadvertently left standing; Peah is the corner of the field that is to be left unharvested. Parallel requirements apply to vineyards and olive orchards. Poor individuals were then permitted to glean that which had not been brought in for processing. Discrimination between Jewish and non­‐Jewish poor was determined to be harmful to attempts to create a peaceful atmosphere within the greater community.

5. a) Religious ceremonial settings; b) situations that are governed by personal convenience or seniority; c) matters of economic livelihood; and d) inter­‐religious relationships are represented by these examples. All such settings have the potential to lead to the shredding of the social fabric, and therefore must be carefully overseen in an attempt to lessen friction and discord.

6. It is generally assumed that whereas those commandments identified as Mishpatim (rules of justice and fairness) are rational, and can be readily understood by the human mind, there are aspects of Jewish practice, primarily in the ritual realm, whose understanding are at best obscure to us, and therefore are given the nomenclature Chukim (decrees).

7. Ethics of Responsibility: Pluralisitic Approaches to Covenental Ethics, JPS, Philadelphia, 1994.

8. On Shemot 23:4, quoted in Tora Shleima, Vol. 18, ed. R. Menachem Kasher, Beit Tora Shleima, Jerusalem, 5752, p.. 165.

9. Ibid. p. 168.


Originally appears on Rabbi Bieler’s blog

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