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Judaism, Civilization & Progress

Tradition or Progress?

By Tzvi Freeman

Paradox, I believe, is the trademark of all things Jewish: If you've resolved anything Jewish without any trace of paradox, go back and get your facts straight. There ain't no such animal. In fact, that's how most misunderstandings arise: They are the creations of innocent minds that will go to all extremes of distortion to save their souls from the discomfort of eternal, sustained paradox.

One paradox that lends itself to disastrous sins of misunderstanding is the tension between tradition and progress in Jewish life. Are we the guardians of the past, our chief mission and mandate to preserve our heritage at all costs, untainted by the winds of change? Or are we the opposite--the fomenters of revolution and dissent, ever out to upset the status quo and leave nothing untransformed?

Quite clearly, we are both. Think of the image of the first Jew--who was also the first iconoclast: A recalcitrant teenager smashing the idols in his father's home. Think of our birth as a nation through a revolt against social injustice. Think of our people's contribution to history: The Jewish idea of innate human dignity, of social justice, of purpose, of a goal of world peace, of a G-d that cares about His world--this has always been the radical element to which all social change can ultimately be traced.

Yet our identity is preserved through our traditions. We adapt by returning to them for precedent and fortitude. We study them continuously and cherish them more than any other possession.

So there is a dual dynamic here, and as in any duality, we must determine which side of the coin is dominant and which secondary: Does progress serve tradition, as a sort of adaptation scheme to preserve the species called the Jewish People? Or does tradition serve progress?

The second proposal is inescapably evident: The thrust of Torah is to change the world. Tradition is no more than a safeguard to effective change.

The essence of Torah, after all, is Halachah (Torah law)--and every Halachah can be reduced to the same statement: The world as you find it is like this. You must make it like that. The same with the stories of our people: The story of Genesis, of the forefathers, of the Exodus, of our entire history, all move in a well-defined progression towards a purpose and a goal. Indeed, it has been posited that the whole idea of progress originates with the Bible.

Tradition, then, is the guardian of progress. Because progress without tradition is just change for the sake of change, spinning about in hopeless circles. To truly move forward, you need a tradition of progress--so that you will remember from where you are coming and to where you aim to go. You need traditions to preserve identity, so that when you participate in the world's progress, you do not forget who you are and what are your true goals. To be effective in the long term, you need to stay on the outside while working on the inside--yet never forgetting that the true purpose lies on the inside. Tradition is the foundation duG-deep in the ground to support the monument of progress towering in the air.

So obvious, yet so easy to forget--especially for those who will always seek the easy way to resolve all paradox: by clinging to one side at the expense of the other.

Which for me explains otherwise astonishing phenomena:

In the early 1980s, the Rebbe began talking much more about the messianic idea in Judaism. Moshiach moved from the realm of ideas to the reality of a full-blown campaign, from tradition to buzzword.

I was studying in Yeshiva at the time and it had all the look and feel of an electric storm. The sense of empowerment was awesome--the whole world stood on a precipice and any one push could carry it over the threshold. And the tension only magnified from year to year.

I was puzzled, however, by the cold reaction in much of the Jewish community. For many, the term "moshiach" had almost left the lexicon. Statements were made to the effect that messianism just was not a Jewish idea! How could Moshiach, so central to Jewish destiny, have become alien to Jewish thought? Today, in retrospect, I can understand: Torah life, in the 300 or so years of reaction to the "enlightenment" and assimilation, had become tradition centered--to the point of abandoning the other pole. The purpose of that tradition had been buried in its dust. Jews had come to identify Judaism with preserving the past. So when someone now discussed moving towards a future, to that mindset it sounded alien and downright dangerous.

Twenty years later, everyone talks of Moshiach--including those who were so stunned by the idea 20 years ago. The danger is that this too can become another traditional, quaint legend. We can all sit quietly, minding our own business, believing that eventually the Moshiach is going to come due to our being so good.

True, it is beyond the scope of us human beings to transform the world so radically on our own. As the Maharal of Prague writes, there is a certain inescapably supernatural element to our messianic belief. But--and perhaps this is another of those paradoxes--that never freed us from doing all that is in our power to turn the world on its head. And how do we turn the world on its head? As our tradition teaches us: By opening the floodgates until the deepest wisdom of the Torah is made accessible to every human mind, and by carrying that wisdom into acts of beauty and caring for life and for our planet. Proactively, with guts and with savvy.

By tradition we are the bearers of that torch. And the world awaits us to carry it high once more.

Biblical Guidelines for Warfare

How Jews Fight
By Menachem Posner

It is said that someone once told Abraham Lincoln that he hoped “the L rd is on our side of the war.” The president responded, "I am not at all concerned about that . . . But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the L rd’s side.”

I believe that this reflects the Jewish attitude toward war. In an imperfect world, the Torah recognizes war as an unfortunate necessity. Ancient Israel had to defend itself, like any other nation. But the Torah also lays down guidelines to ensure that this horrible tool is used sparingly and compassionately.

As always, the Torah’s wisdom is timeless. Many of the laws governing warfare are as prescient today as they were three thousand years ago. Here is a sampling.

In general, the wars fought by the Jewish armies were divided into two categories: Milchemet mitzvah (obligatory war), a war that G-dcommands us to fight; and milchemet reshut (voluntary war).

A prime example of milchemet mitzvah would be the battles waged by Joshua to conquer the Land of Israel. All wars fought for the defense of Israel were also included in this category.

Voluntary wars, those deemed necessary by the nation’s leaders, could be fought only with the consent of the high court of 71 Torah sages.

In either case, the Jewish armies were forbidden to initiate a war without first attempting to offer the enemy peace. The terms of the settlement included their keeping the Seven Noahide Commandments and paying monetary tribute to Israel.

When besieging a city, we are enjoined not to encircle the entire city. Rather, one side must remain open, allowing all those who wish to flee to do so. Neither may we cut down fruit trees outside the city, or stuff up the water supply. (This applies in times of peace of well. In fact, the sages derive the prohibition against wantonly destroying natural resources, known as bal tashchit, from these laws.) Even in times of war, we must retain human dignity and hygienic standards. To this end, Israelite soldiers carried a spike with them to bury their waste.

The Jewish armies were led out to war by a special kohen (priest), known as the mashuach milchamah (the one anointed for war), who was designated for this task. He would encourage the soldiers to fight bravely, telling them that G-d was surely on their side.

He would also announce that anyone who had recently betrothed a woman but not married her, planted an orchard but not yet worked it, or built a new home but not yet moved in, should leave the battlefield and support the warriors from behind the lines.

(In a milchemet reshut, one who had married, moved into a new home or begun working a new orchard within the past year did not report to battle altogether. These people would, however, participate in a milchemet mitzvah.) The kohen would also announce that anyone who was afraid should leave the front rather than dampen the morale of his comrades. When the kohen spoke of fear, he was not just speaking to those frightened by the dangers of battle. He was also talking to the person who knew that he had sinned against G-d and might not be worthy of divine protection in a dangerous situation.

These laws, and the many others governing warfare, were designed to ensure that the Jews performed their role as a “light unto the nations,” a beacon of righteousness in a dark and immoral world. Of course, the Torah’s main objective is to achieve the purpose for which the world was created: the messianic era, when “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore . . .” (Isaiah 2:4).

Torah, Slavery and the Jews

By Tzvi Freeman


My question is about slavery in the Torah. Why did the Torah allow it? It bothers me, though I know there must be some explanation.


Once in a while a question comes along that gets to the core of everything. Then along comes some smart-aleck to provide an answer and wash the whole thing away.

Questions such as these are not just holes in the ground waiting to be plugged up. They are invitations to spelunk deep beneath the surface, traveling all the way to the bedrock of our beliefs, challenging basic assumptions and redefining the landscape.

Your question is one of those bedrock questions: After all, isn't slavery the antithesis of Torah? Torah begins with the creation of Adam in the Divine Image. The central event of the Torah narrative is the liberation of an entire nation of slaves from a cruel oppressor. Torah is about liberty, human dignity and respect for our fellow citizens of this planet for which the Creator cares so much. More than Torah is Man's discovery of G-d, Torah is G-d's discovery of Man and his world.

You'll note, too, that as soon as the Ten Commandments are done with, where does the Torah begin legislating? "If you will have a maidservant..."--with the rights of the most easily oppressed citizen, a young girl working in your home.

Let me point out another powerful weapon of social upheaval that the Torah espouses, especially through the medium of KinG-david's collection of psalms: The Divine CEO open-door policy. A.k.a. "personal prayer": Any individual, indeed, any living creature, can at any moment, for any complaint, cry out to the Master of the Universe and his/her/its petition will be heard and acted upon. Guaranteed. "This poor man cries out and G-d listens." You may not have thought about this, but those may just be the most radical, subversive and revolutionary words in history. Whereas the kings and priests of old would have their subjects believe that life is a grand chain of command with yours truly on top and you scum on the bottom, this idea of personal prayer flattened all hierarchies: Everyone is equally close to the top of the ladder.

Torah is not just about liberty, Torah liberates in a radical way. Yet here you have these laws about buying and selling slaves. What's going on?

Okay, they're not really slaves. Slaves are people owned by other people. In Torah law, you never have complete ownership over anything. These slaves rest on the seventh day and Jewish holidays, cannot be physically or sexually abused and are obligated in many mitzvot. So they are really more like indentured servants. But that certainly does not answer our question: Why should any human being be deprived of rights and privileges that others have? Such as the right to live wherever they please, work for whoever they wish to work and quit whenever they want? How does this divvy up with the Torah's assertion that every human being bears the Divine Image?


Yes, there's tension here, and as every good dramatist and massage therapist knows, tension is a good point to play with.

The place we're going to start is Maimonides' Laws of Servants. Being the reckless, impatient souls that we are, we'll start from the very last words.

(You may ask, "Why the obsession with Maimonides? Is he the only authority on everything?" No, he's not. But he's usually a great place to search for answers.

Maimonides wrote the only codification of the entire gamut of Jewish law-the Mishnah only includes those matters that were not common practice and could come to be forgotten. And the Shulchan Aruch includes only those matters that apply in the time of exile. And he wrote in a concise style with great precision.

Sure, he hit up against lots of controversy for a few hundred years. But eventually he was accepted as the foremost authority since the close of the Babylonian Talmud.)

So here goes:

It is permissible to work a non-Jewish servant harshly. Yet, although this is the law, the way of the pious and the wise is to be compassionate and to pursue justice, not to overburden or oppress a servant, and to provide them from every dish and every drink.

The early sages would give their servants from every dish on their table. They would feed their animals and their servants before sitting to their own meals. Does it not say (Psalms 123:2), "As the eyes of the servant to the hand of his master; as the eyes of the maid to her mistress [so our eyes are towards the L-rd our G-d...]"? So, too, you should not denigrate a servant, neither physically nor verbally. The Torah made him your servant to do work, not to be disgraced. Do not treat him with constant screaming and anger, rather speak with him pleasantly and listen to his complaints. Such were the good ways in which Job took pride when he said, "Did I ever despise the judgment of my servant and my maid when they argued with me? Did not my Maker make him, too, in the belly; did not the same One form us both in the womb?"

For anger and cruelty are only found among other nations. The children of Abraham, our father--and they are Israel, to whom the Holy One, blessed be He, has provided the goodness of Torah and commanded us righteous judgments and statutes--they are compassionate to all. This is one of the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He, that we are commanded to emulate (Psalms 145:9): "And He has compassion for all He has made." Furthermore, all who have compassion will be treated compassionately, as was stated (Deuteronomy 13:18), "He will give you compassion and He will have compassion upon you and multiply you." (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Indentured Servants, 9:8)

Is Democracy Jewish?

Why didn't we think of this first?
By Tzvi Freeman


As far as I can see, democracy is the greatest thing that has happened to humanity. Democratic states don’t make war with one another, they protect the rights of their citizens, and they ensure prosperity and freedom for all. I’m looking forward to democracy taking over in the Middle East—I think that could change everything in the Arab lands. Also, as far as I have been taught, democracy is a Greek idea. If Judaism is so great, why didn’t it give us democracy?


I know you want a quick, simple answer, but I would be doing you a disservice by providing that. A simple answer would have to confirm the very questionable assertions and assumptions of your question. So please allow me to present an alternative perspective first.

It’s indisputable that the modern era has seen dramatic increase in freedoms, prosperity and health. Hans Rosling’s website provides all the stats you need to demonstrate just how dramatic that has been. And despite the illusion we perceive through the eyes of the media, there has been a correspondinG-drop in violence over the past 500 years. Since the period after WWII alone, there’s been a 90% reduction in violent deaths worldwide. The question is: what are the factors behind this phenomenal transformation in society? Is it democracy alone, or are there other dynamics? What about, for example, industrialization, exploration, the advance of science and especially medicine, capitalism, international banking and globalization?

All these factors weave together to form the complex and wondrous tapestry of the modern era. Yet beyond any of them, there is one I haven’t yet mentioned without which our world would be unrecognizably different. Really, it might be closer to the nightmare of George Orwell’s 1984, or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—both of them possible with all the above factors in place, includinG-democracy.

I’m speaking of that which Thomas Jefferson called “inalienable rights.” Rights do not arise spontaneously out of democracy. On the contrary, in a very vital way, inalienable rights is in direct conflict with democracy, and can run smack up against it: Even if all the people of the land would vote tomorrow that Muslims can no longer read the Koran, or that the mentally retarded do not have a right to live, that vote would have to be declared invalid in the successful democratic states of today. Ironically, for democracy to be viable, it must allow itself to be limited, bridled and trumped by human rights.

History is sometimes called G-d’s laboratory. We can’t replicate the experiments, but we can go back and see what happened. Democracy, it turns out, was an experiment that failed. We have that the admittance of the Hellenist historian, Polybus, who coined the term “ochlacratia” meaning mob rule. In more recent times, it was a democratic republic that was responsible for the horrors of the Reign of Terror in post-revolution France. It was the “will of the people” that produced the Salem Witch Trials in America. It was a democratic election that brought the Third Reich to power in Germany, as well as the terrorist Hamas regime in Gaza. I’m sorry to put a wet blanket on the world’s enthusiasm over the current wave of uprisings in the Middle East, but the facts remain: Democracy has often been a prelude to the worst forms of dictatorship.

It was fear of just such perils that led John Stuart Mill to insist on safeguards against the “tyranny of the majority.” Even democracy, it seems, needs a leash.

The problem is: who will determine what those safeguards should be, if not the majority? Whose authority could be recognized with so absolutely as to lie beyond even the will of the people?

The authors of the American Declaration of Independence had no problem with this question. In the second sentence of their declaration, they asserted openly that these “unalienable rights” are endowed upon men “by their Creator.” Who else could determine that, “all men are created equal” other than the One that made them that way? Democracy could work, therefore, because it remained bridled by the law of G-d.

I think you’re beginning to see my point here: Who introduced this idea of human rights to the world? Did the Romans, the Greeks, the Sumerians or the wise men of ancient India or China teach that “all men are created equal” and that all have a right to justice before the law? As Joshua Berman demonstrates in scholarly yet lucid form (”Created Equal—How the Bible broke with ancient political thought”), the very concept of a nation forged by a covenant of duties, freedoms and rights was a unique and radical phenomenon of ancient Israel, not to be emulated by any other nation until 1776.

A fine example:

Ahab is often considered ancient Israel’s most notoriously wicked king. Yet read what happens when he finds himself pitted against a citizen’s divine rights:

…Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard, which was in Jezreel, next to the palace of Ahab, the king of Samaria. Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard so I can have it for a vegetable garden since it is near my house. I will give you instead of it a vineyard which is better than it. Or, if you like, I will pay you its worth.” But Naboth said to Ahab, “G-d forbids me to give the inheritance of my forefathers to you.”

So Ahab went home sad and upset because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him, when he said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my forefathers.” He lay on his bed, turned away his face, and did not eat bread. Jezebel, Ahab’s non-Jewish wife, couldn’t understand the problem. Her husband is a king and he cannot get whatever he desires? To please her husband, she conspired a false accusation with hired witnesses against Naboth, thereby procuring his vineyard for hubby dear.

Yet the point remains: Even to the most immoral of kings, a citizen property rights were inalienable. Ahab could not even imagine abrogating those rights and instead just lay sulking in his bed.

Now let’s deal directly with your question: We don’t really know how democracy evolved. In 8th century (BCE) Greece, it appears that a legislator named Solon introduced greater power to a larger number of citizens in the determination of political powers. Nevertheless, most of the time, most Greek states were governed by other means. Some point to (questionable) evidence of democratic rule in ancient Sumeria or India. Jared Diamond points out that small tribe and bands are inherently democratic in their unsophisticated way. At any rate, it was not until democracy was married to the idea of human rights, initially in Britain and in America, that it really became a viable proposition for large societies.

The Torah clearly demands a constitutional monarchy. Historically, however, things didn’t always work that way. The period of the Judges was marked by leaders who were chosen through the consensus of the elders of each tribe and community. According to Talmudic tradition, this system endured into the period of the Kings and later: Judges for the people were chosen by the people of each town, from there potentially moving on to sit on the Supreme Court assembly of 70 elders in Jerusalem. Maimonides outlines this system in vivid detail in his “Laws of the Sanhedrin.”

In the time of exile, it was common for Jewish communities to hold elections for a community council, often called the “tuvei ha-ir”—the “best of the town.” Yet, most of all, it was the value of education for every child and the love of learning that preserved the Jewish commitment of respect and honor for all of its members.

Democracy is certainly compatible with Jewish values. Is it the messiah for humankind? It may be part of the package. But without the prelude of a constitution protecting the rights of every individual, a democracy can easily burn down churches, persecute minorities, imprison political opponents, make futile, disastrous war and eventually implode upon itself to retrograde into a worse dictatorship than had ever stood before.

As paradoxical as it may sound, a stable and sustainable world in which every individual has liberty and equality before the law is only possible when we accept the voice of a single Higher Authority, one who cares for this world He has made, and for every creature He has placed within it. That is the potent idea Torah injects into the world; and in the past few hundred years we have seen its results unfolding before us.