Responding to Cherry-Picked Derision of the Mitzvot

It is quite the fad among those who oppose fundamentalism — especially those who advocate for a more humane approach to the reality of same-sex romantic relationships in our contemporary world — to respond to “Bible-thumpers” by pointing out their hypocrisy: “What about all the other Scriptural prohibitions that you don’t spend any time preaching about, or might even violate yourself?!” This basic approach is important and has its place. We observant Jews, I think, find it especially laughable that non-Jews would be so adamant about the absolute authority of certain mitzvot while completely ignoring others.

However, this tactic of alerting the fundamentalist to his or her fallacies often moves in a different direction, especially when employed by those who seem to hate religion in general. Such people tend to equate all religiosity with fundamentalism and seem to find ridiculous, backward, and indeed threatening to modern life any practice that doesn’t have an immediately discernible rational explanation. Their inability to see that such practices might still have meaning for others leads them to dismiss the entire idea of adhering to a code of behavior that dates further back than last week, especially if any concept of a relationship to Divinity is expressed as part of the motivation for the practices or the system itself.

The Huffington Post has just published a typical sortie in this ongoing “battle” between atheists and fundamentalists. After reading it, I decided I’ve had enough and that it was time for me to weigh in with some advocacy for nuance and moderation in such discussions. I’m sure the haters on either extreme are yelling too loudly to hear me, but perhaps those in the middle who might be interested in a more intelligent conversation will find something worthwhile in my response.

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As an observant Jew, I agree with many other comments here that it makes little sense for Christians to cite some commandments from the Hebrew Bible as authoritative and to ignore others. And, like all Jews, I see all the commandments within the context of a much larger interpretive tradition that maintains that “anyone who translates a verse literally is a liar” (Babyl. Talmud, Kiddushin 49a), that essentially legislated out of any practical application many of the “archaic” laws of the Torah such as the stoning of disobedient children and capital punishment in general, that ultimately saw slavery (permitted in the Torah) as abhorrent, that transformed the basic Biblical practices of marriage through the banning of polygyny, etc. So, I agree that one — whether or not he or she plans on adhering to the commandments of the Hebrew Bible — ought to view them skeptically at first reading (skepticism is very Jewish; fundamentalism is not).

However, I am offended by the approach of this post in its attempt to casually suggest that the whole corpus of laws from the Hebrew Bible is ridiculous, and I’m probably even more offended by many of the specific prohibitions cited as efforts to prove the author’s point. As for the approach: It seems that the author deliberately chose the most archaic English translations of the material (lots of “thee”s and “thou”s), a technique that seems similar to a litigator’s act of “leading the witness.” Yes, these commandments were delivered in an ancient language, but to their original readers (and the original readers of various translations in historical context), they likely sounded much more felicitous than the words here do to readers of English in 2012. Other translations exist today with language that is much less “off-putting” than the language used here.

More importantly, this approach ignores the social and literary context of many of these laws. I believe that we need to be closer readers of the texts that have played such a significant role in shaping the values and laws that define our society. I believe that the proper correction for the myopic, “cherry-picking” use of Leviticus 18:22 by bigots, autocrats, and demagogues is not the same kind of cherry-picking in our rebuttal but rather a different kind of conversation about the Bible, its history of interpretation, and ethics — not more of the same decontextualized readings of other verses.

More egregious is the dismissal of many of the values (and practices) underlying the laws cited as examples here. At the very least, the problem with this current post is that in many cases, it focused on the “wrong” commandments to ridicule (i.e. practices not deserving of ridicule). The author seems to suggest that since most people gossip, it must be okay. What a terrible approach! I would prefer that people who have any ethical moorings argue with a little more nuance for intelligent adults to try navigating through the array of behavioral choices available to them by working to discern which ones have serious implications for those around them and which ones do not. In other words, we have much to learn about the Biblical abhorrence of inappropriate speech; not simply because the Bible says so, but because the Bible happens to be right on this issue — the abuse we commit with our words is much more destructive to another human being and to society as a whole than are the sexual acts of two consenting adults.

As for the other laws derided in this post, several have been “legislated out” of relevance even within normative Judaism in the manner mentioned above. In these cases, the author betrays ignorance about context. Others, however, remain at the foundation of a contemporary Jewish life in the pursuit of holiness and meaning and are anything but archaic, irrelevant, or inoperative to serious, observant contemporary Jews. Many Jews continue to take dietary prohibitions and Sabbath observance seriously for a variety of reasons. Such practices have had significant positive impact on the connectedness that Jews feel towards a tradition that forges a unique identity, that instills in us a sense of discipline, that emphasizes that we be conscientious about what we consume in our mastery of the world around us, that celebrates taking time away from a daily grind that depletes our energy and that blinds us from what really matters in the world, and that sensitizes us to living humbly in our quest for sanctity.

If more people were strict about adhering to some of these other “13 laws” than they were about preaching about other people’s apparent disobedience of other Biblical commandments, I believe the world would be a much more civilized and sanctified place. We don’t accomplish much by “throwing the baby out with the bath water” and ridiculing the entirety of ancient religion. Narrow readings of any text are generally not helpful. If we read more openly — including in a manner that pays attention to the world around us rather than just the actual words on the page — we can discover not only which ancient texts are truly problematic as we move forward but we can also discover deep possibilities for meaning and goodness within many texts and practices, both ancient and modern.

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