The Rule of Law as a Necessary Condition of Jewish Existence

Deuteronomy Va-et’chanan; Chapter 4

The rule of law is rooted in ethics, whether it is the commandment to love another as oneself and show mercy to those in need, or Rabbi Hillel’s terse summation: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others. The rest is commentary, go and learn.” But that is not how the parashat begins. You are commanded to obey the law in order to enter and occupy the Promised Land. Not for moral reasons but for political advantage and self-interest. Further, your survival depends not on ethical behaviour but on fealty to God and disdain of idolatry. (4:2-4) There is a third self-interested reason. Israelites should obey the law so that they may offer witness of their wisdom and discernment to the people of other nations.

Obey the law for political success as occupiers – occupation is not a dirty word – to survive as a nation and to serve as a witness to other nations of your ability to rule wisely and fairly. There are major conditions to be able to do this. First, observe carefully. “Take the utmost care and watch yourself scrupulously so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so they do not fade from your mind as long as you live.” (Deuteronomy 4:9) Observe; do not manage your affairs based on wishful thinking or fantasy. Second, remember. Learn from what you see. There are lessons from experience that must be translated into memory. Memory is not myth. Memory is a living reality. Memory is the miracle that fosters renewal and rededication. Third, these lessons must be passed on to your children. Education is critical.

These are the three ethical and the three instrumental lessons of the enlightenment passed on at Mount Horeb.

The foundation for transferring those substantive and methodological foundation conditions is listening. Listening is a prologomena to even observing. Attend to the divine voice of the spirit as it unfolds and reveals itself in history. (4:10-14) That is the opposite of idolatry. That is the opposite of any effort to reify the divine spirit of revelation.

But are the ten commandments not cast in stone. Yes, but these are words of understanding articulated as norms. The are not the reification of a being. They are exemplifications of the rule of law and not the rule of an entity, whether man or beast. Submit yourself to the rule of law and the divine word and never to ephemeral apparitions frozen in concrete. Do not get sucked in by politicians who would sell you the Brooklyn Bridge. They are hustlers and charlatans. For if you surrender to such a reified image you will either face extermination or be cast out of the Promised Land. That will be the day of Tish B’Av.  

לב  כִּי שְׁאַל-נָא לְיָמִים רִאשֹׁנִים אֲשֶׁר-הָיוּ לְפָנֶיךָ, לְמִן-הַיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אָדָם עַל-הָאָרֶץ, וּלְמִקְצֵה הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְעַד-קְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם:  הֲנִהְיָה, כַּדָּבָר הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה, אוֹ, הֲנִשְׁמַע כָּמֹהוּ.32 For ask now of the days past, which were before thee, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and from the one end of heaven unto the other, whether there hath been any such thing as this great thing is, or hath been heard like it?
לג  הֲשָׁמַע עָם קוֹל אֱלֹהִים מְדַבֵּר מִתּוֹךְ-הָאֵשׁ, כַּאֲשֶׁר-שָׁמַעְתָּ אַתָּה–וַיֶּחִי.33 Did ever a people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live?
לד  אוֹ הֲנִסָּה אֱלֹהִים, לָבוֹא לָקַחַת לוֹ גוֹי מִקֶּרֶב גּוֹי, בְּמַסֹּת בְּאֹתֹת וּבְמוֹפְתִים וּבְמִלְחָמָה וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבְמוֹרָאִים גְּדֹלִים:  כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לָכֶם יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, בְּמִצְרַיִם–לְעֵינֶיךָ.34 Or hath God assayed to go and take Him a nation from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, and by wonders, and by war, and by a mighty hand, and by an outstretched arm, and by great terrors, according to all that the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before thine eyes?
לה  אַתָּה הָרְאֵתָ לָדַעַת, כִּי יְהוָה הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים:  אֵין עוֹד, מִלְּבַדּוֹ.35 Unto thee it was shown, that thou mightest know that the LORD, He is God; there is none else beside Him.
לו  מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם הִשְׁמִיעֲךָ אֶת-קֹלוֹ, לְיַסְּרֶךָּ; וְעַל-הָאָרֶץ, הֶרְאֲךָ אֶת-אִשּׁוֹ הַגְּדוֹלָה, וּדְבָרָיו שָׁמַעְתָּ, מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ.36 Out of heaven He made thee to hear His voice, that He might instruct thee; and upon earth He made thee to see His great fire; and thou didst hear His words out of the midst of the fire.
לז  וְתַחַת, כִּי אָהַב אֶת-אֲבֹתֶיךָ, וַיִּבְחַר בְּזַרְעוֹ, אַחֲרָיו; וַיּוֹצִאֲךָ בְּפָנָיו בְּכֹחוֹ הַגָּדֹל, מִמִּצְרָיִם.37 And because He loved thy fathers, and chose their seed after them, and brought thee out with His presence, with His great power, out of Egypt,
לח  לְהוֹרִישׁ, גּוֹיִם גְּדֹלִים וַעֲצֻמִים מִמְּךָ–מִפָּנֶיךָ; לַהֲבִיאֲךָ, לָתֶת-לְךָ אֶת-אַרְצָם נַחֲלָה–כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה.38 to drive out nations from before thee greater and mightier than thou, to bring thee in, to give thee their land for an inheritance, as it is this day;
לט  וְיָדַעְתָּ הַיּוֹם, וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ אֶל-לְבָבֶךָ, כִּי יְהוָה הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים, בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל וְעַל-הָאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת:  אֵין, עוֹד.39 know this day, and lay it to thy heart, that the LORD, He is God in heaven above and upon the earth beneath; there is none else.
מ  וְשָׁמַרְתָּ אֶת-חֻקָּיו וְאֶת-מִצְוֺתָיו, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם, אֲשֶׁר יִיטַב לְךָ, וּלְבָנֶיךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ–וּלְמַעַן תַּאֲרִיךְ יָמִים עַל-הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ כָּל-הַיָּמִים.  {פ}40 And thou shalt keep His statutes, and His commandments, which I command thee this day, that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days upon the land, which the LORD thy God giveth thee, for ever. {P}

Redemption will always remain a possibility. The people merely need – well not merely, but rather with strength and conviction – to return to the spirit of Egypt when the nation first learned to submit to the will of a revealing divine spirit. We must always act as if we were slaves in Egypt escaping from the rule of a despot for a covenant to be governed by the rule of law and bondage to a higher spirit. The covenant that God made then is with us here and now.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg wrote that, “The secret of Jewish survival has been the incredible capacity of Jews to use the memory of tragedy to spur themselves to come back again and again after defeat.” Because the traditional two-state solution is now dead, or, at the very least, dead ended, does not mean that the quest for peace and reconciliation must be surrendered. Quite the opposite. We must renew our dedication, if not to find peace now, at the very least to exercise a collective responsibility not only for ourselves but for the other.

Walk the talk. Walk the path. Do not just grieve. Rebuild. Construct a polity built on the rule of law where rule is exercised with both wisdom and fairness. Show that when you rule over another, that rule will be carried out with love and respect. Do not denigrate the other. Correct and guide them as and only when necessary, but always guided by care for their well-being and their dignity. That is what it means to be holy. Be decent. Treat Palestinians as partners in creation and never as the devil incarnate. And always remember that you are part of one people responsible for such precepts articulated in the rule of law.

For countering COVID-19, isolation and separation may be prerequisites. Masking and distancing may be prerequisites. Testing and tracing may be prerequisites. However, in order to engage in such a combat, we must feel that we are all in it together, that we have a responsibility for one another. Jews must give witness to the challenge of communal responsibility that in turn requires an obligation of one Jew for another. All Jews are Israelis. And Israelis have a special responsibility to treat the Other with respect.


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