Tradition Today: Reclaiming the Torah

Any social protest movement would do well to seize the Torah as its mandate and its guide.

Torah scroll 521 (photo credit: Stockbyte)
Torah scroll 521
(photo credit: Stockbyte)
I don’t know about you, but I am getting tired of having the Torah misrepresented as if it were some outdated, fanatic, primitive book calling for the repression of women, the mistreatment of non-Jews, hatred of Arabs and in general a dark and oppressive worldview.
Have any of these people who pretend to represent the views of the Torah really read it lately – and I do not mean listening to the weekly portion being chanted in the synagogue or arguing over the meaning of this word or that as interpreted by ancient sources – but really looking to see what its message was when it first burst upon the world scene, and what it has to say to us today? If they were to do so, they would discover a document that shattered old myths and formulated social laws revolutionizing the concept of what an ideal human society should be. It was, and remains, one of – if not the – great humanistic documents freeing us from forces of darkness and foolish beliefs and revising ancient laws in a liberal and humane fashion.
In its very opening chapters the Torah proclaims ideas that had never been heard before: the equality of all humanity, the equality of men and women, the inherent worth and dignity of all human life created in the image of God. It may not have taken steps to achieve total legal equality of men and women, but it went a long way on that journey and set the goal for what would yet be achieved in the future. It teaches the evil of slavery, eliminates it in Israel, leaving only indentured servitude, and mitigates it for all peoples, dictates proper treatment and even love of strangers, and calls for care for the poor and the downtrodden. It bespeaks the dignity of labor and the need to treat workers well and pay them proper wages.
The Torah goes so far as to visualize a society in which there are no poor, a society in which all have an equal share in the ownership of land so that none would be homeless. It innovates laws that would not permit anyone to permanently lose their land or to be mired in debt, proclaiming periodic returns of land to the original owners and forgiving debts. It gives grants to the poor and accords them the legal right to take produce from fields so that they will not starve.
I know of no other ancient or modern document that is so concerned with the welfare of the needy, with those who have no power. It boldly proclaims that God is their defender and protector. No society has come even close to achieving that vision.
Millennia before the Magna Carta the Torah warned of the excesses of monarchs and severely limited the powers and the rights of kings. Indeed for the Torah, the whole idea of a monarchy was seen only as a concession to human needs and weaknesses, and not as an ideal. There is no divine right of kings, only limitations on their power. In what other ancient society could a king be castigated for his crimes as David was by Nathan? The Torah similarly limits and redefines the role of the clergy – the priests. They serve the people and they serve God.
They have no superhuman or magical powers, nor do they possess any secret knowledge kept from the common people.
The Torah is open to all. Just compare the laws of the Torah and the political institutions that it established with the society of ancient Egypt from which the Israelites had emerged to appreciate the greatness of the Torah’s vision.
Any social protest movement would do well to seize the Torah as its mandate and its guide. It is indeed time to reclaim the Torah from those who distort it and see it for the liberating document that it truly is.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).