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"For Instruction shall come forth from Zion, The word of the L-rd from Jerusalem." -- Isaiah 2:3

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GENESIS — 1:2 void

… the Torah announces many, many times that G-d cares a great deal about whether we obey the commandments. Only then would it make sense for G-d to promise generous rewards for doing so and threaten excruciating punishments for failing to do so, and only then would G-d bother to establish law for us in the first place as an act of love. G-d in Search of Man is the title of a book by 20th-century Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, and it correctly suggests, as he demonstrates in the book, that classical Judaism portrays a G-d who is very much interested in what human beings do. G-d does not need any physical sacrifice, as the pagans of old thought, but G-d “rejoices in His creatures,” as the Psalmist says. Psalm 104:31  The Rabbis were nevertheless able to step back from this theological foundation of the commandments to maintain that even without the religious reasons to obey them, there are good reasons of self-interest to do so – namely, that Jewish law calls us to become our higher selves, to improve our character and our human relations. The Rabbis thus sound in these passages as if they were speaking to many 21st-century Jews!  On the other hand, the Rabbis asserted the exact opposite claim too. You should obey the commandments not for your own benefit, but for G-d’s.  G-d, in fact, cares very much that Jews observe the commandments – so much so that G-d has made the continued existence of the world contingent on whether Jews fulfill the Torah’s commands: “What is the meaning of the words, ‘The earth feared and was still’ Psalms 76:9?’ …Before Israel accepted the Torah, the earth was afraid, after they accepted the Torah, it was still …. For the Holy Blessed One stipulated a condition with the earth: If Israel accepts the Torah, you may exist, but if not, I will return you to the state of being unformed and void [as before Creation, according to [this verse].” Shabbat 88a  “G-d said, ‘If you read the Torah, you do a kindness, for you help to preserve My world, for if it were not for the Torah, the world would again become ‘without form and void.’ … The matter is like a king who had a precious stone, and he entrusted it to his friend and said to him, ‘I pray you, pay attention to it and guard it, as is fitting, for if you lose it, you cannot pay me its worth, and I have no other jewel like it, and so you would sin against yourself and against me; therefore, do your duty by both of us, and guard the jewel as is fitting.’ So Moses said to the Israelites, ‘If you obey the Torah, not only upon yourselves do you confer a benefit, but also upon G-d,’ as it is said, ‘And it shall be a benefit for us.’ Deuteronomy 6:5 [The Midrash takes “us” in this biblical verse to mean G-d and Israel, and the word tzedakah – “righteousness” – it takes to mean benefit, which led to its later, more familiar meaning as charity.] Deuteronomy Rabbah, Nitzavim 8:5  To believe that G-d would never have created the physical world without the Jews’ acceptance of the Torah – that is, to take this rabbinic comment literally—not only tests the limits of our credulity but is disgracefully chauvinistic. Furthermore, it flies in the face of Judaism’s appreciation of people of other faiths being in the Noahide covenant with G-d. The comment, though, can have credible meaning, indeed, very important meaning, if we read it in the context of other things the Rabbis said. The first chapter of the Mishnah’s tractate Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) contains two passages that suggest that the Rabbis thought that the continued existence of the world as we know it functionally depends on the foundational values embedded in Jewish law: “Shimon the Just … used to say: ‘The world stands on three things: on Torah, on worship, and on acts of kindness’” 1:2; “Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel taught: ‘The world exists on the basis of three things: on justice, on truth, and on peace’” 1:18. It is not the physical world that depends on these values inherent in Jewish law. Without Torah, we would not have the gift of G-d’s guidance for our lives; without worship, we might think that only we matter, making it impossible to escape the self-centered way in which we are all-too-prone to think and act; and without acts of kindness none of us would be able to survive, either physically or emotionally.  Similarly, without justice and a government that enforces it, people would “kill each other alive,” as another passage from Avot [3:2] proclaims; without truth, nobody could know whom or what to trust; and without peace, as the Rabbis say elsewhere, none of the blessings of life matter.  Numbers Rabbah 11:7 In the Jerusalem Talmud, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel continues his teaching thus: “And all three are intertwined: when justice is done, truth is served, and peace ensues.” Ha-Am, Al Parshat Derakhim, 3:30 It is in this sense that the world—and especially human societies—depend upon these values underlying Jewish law. DORFFLGP 174-77
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GENESIS — 1:2 void

Israel’s acceptance of the Torah was the reason it had a special covenant with G-d: “If it were not for My Torah that you accepted, I should not recognize you, and I should not regard you more than any of the idolatrous nations of the world.” Exodus Rabbah, Ki Tissa 47:3 Moreover, as asserted in sources cited earlier [See (this verse) “void” DORFFLGP 174-77] the Torah is Israel’s gift to G-d and the world, and through it Israel gains not only worth but beauty. … In sum, then, the Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash, who were the framers of Judaism and gave it its distinctive case, held unequivocally that a Jew must observe the Torah’s laws. They also held, though, that the Torah was not given once and for all at Mount Sinai but rather must be interpreted and applied anew in each generation. Only if this happens can the Torah continue to be an important concerns of Jews, a program of living. The alternative is to let it petrify into a relic of history. Thus it is not so much “tradition and change,” a phrase suggested by Rabbi Mordecai Waxman to typify both the rabbinic tradition and the modern Conservative (Masorti) movement, as it is “tradition, which includes change.” DORFFLGP 205-6
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GENESIS — 1:27 image

… [the Rabbis’] strong conviction of the sanctity of human life, expressed especially in the early chapters of Genesis [this verse, 5:1, 9:6] that we are created in the image of G-d … is reflected in the Rabbis’ ruling that a man without children of his own was [sic] eligible to judge a capital case, T. Sanhedrin 7:3; B. Sanhedrin 36b; M.T. Laws of Courts (Sanhedrin) 2:3 presumably because his lack of experience in having children makes him insufficiently appreciative of the value of human life. Children bring a renewed sense of the preciousness of life, both that of victim, in the case of someone accused of murder, and that of the culprit. DORFFLGP 67
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GENESIS — 9:6 in

It is interesting that the ideal world of righteousness and justice that Jewish texts envision even provides for the possibility that although everyone will follow G-d’s ways, each person will continue to worship his or her own god Micah 4:1-5. Along these lines, the Rabbis proclaim that G-d created a covenant with all human beings, the covenant of the children of Noah, and non-Jews fulfill G-d’s will if they obey the seven requirements of that covenant. T. Avodah Zarah 8:4; B. Sanhedrin 56a. See Novak, The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism.  Jewish sources require that Jews should follow G-d’s more demanding covenant with the People of Israel, but they contemplate a degree of tolerance and even pluralism that were truly unique in their day and are still rare in ours. Even if we construe the “general welfare” clause of the Preamble expansively, American law does not aspire to changing the whole world to be free of violence or want and certainly not to create one universal covenant with G-d; the goal is rather “the general welfare” solely “for ourselves and our posterity.” After World War II, Americans provided much of the funding to rebuild Europe, and Americans have donated some small percentage of the yearly national budget to help other countries with their medical and other needs; but most would maintain that this generosity is motivated much more by the United States’s own interests than by altruism or some vision of messianic future. Thus even the most idealistic construction of America law focuses on the United States alone, in contrast to the universalistic goals embedded in Jewish literature, in which the People Israel are the primary partner in the covenant with G-d, but they are to serve as a “light to the nations” Isaiah 49:6, 51:4 of how everyone should live. This has two important ramifications. First, Jewish law presumes that Jews can never be held to a lesser standard than that to which non-Jews are held. Therefore, sometimes when internal reasoning seems to suggest that Jews are subject to a more permissive stance than non-Jews, that result alone requires a rethinking of the reasoning that brought us to that conclusion; it requires going back to the drawing board, for that results contradicts the Talmudic principle that “there is nothing permitted to an Israelite that is forbidden to an non-Jew.” B. Sanhedrin 59a So, for example, in the Talmud Rabbi Ishmael understands [this verse] to say that for non-Jews feticide is the equivalent of murder;  B. Sanhedrin 57b. The same teaching is taught in the name of Rabbi Hanina in Genesis Rabbah 34:14 Jews, however, are actually required to abort a fetus to save the life of its mother because the fetus has a lesser legal status than its mother, as Exodus 21:22-25 declares.  M. Oholot 7:6 That immediately raises the question, though, of how can it be that Jews are permitted to do what non-Jews are not? Jewish authorities resolve this by various methods. Most find reasons to permit non-Jews to abort for therapeutic reasons as well, despite their theoretical capital culpability for doing so. Some use that culpability for non-Jews to demonstrate how serious the decision to abort is for Jews as well, even when it is necessary and legally required to save the life of the mother and all the more so for other reasons.  Tosafot to B. Sanhedrin 59a … see, in general, Feldman, Birth Control in Jewish Law, p. 262. Second, the messianic goals of Judaism in general and Jewish law in particular can and do act as a source for critiquing any particular expression of it. When Jewish law is less just or compassionate than it can be, it fails in its function of being “a light to the nations.” That requires Jewish authorities to reevaluate the law as it has come down to us and, if necessary, change it. …because Jewish law aspires to create an ideal world, it can and should be assessed in any generation and on any issue as to the extent to which it is accomplishing that purpose. DORFFLGP 9-11
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GENESIS — 17:19 him

The Torah is ... concerned that our relationship with G-d be an honorable one, in which we show gratitude for what G-d has done for us. It focuses on our character as a people. We should be sensitive enough to recognize G-d’s acts of caring for us and to respond appropriately – namely, by living our lives in the ways G-d has taught us.  In the rabbinic mind, the mutual relationship between G-d and Israel means that G-d also owes us for what we do for G-d. Here is one example of that: “It was taught: Abraham said before the Holy Blessed One: ‘It is revealed and known to you that at the time You told me to offer him [Isaac] as a burnt offering, I had grounds to object. Yesterday You said to me that your posterity will be through Isaac [this verse], and now You tell me to offer him as a burnt offering? I, however, overcame my inclination [to disobey] (other version: I overcame my compassion for my son) to do Your will. So too, may it be Your will that when Isaac’s children have troubles and there is no one to defend them You should be their defense attorney. (Other version: When Isaac’s children sin and do evil, this binding should be remembered on their behalf, and You should be filled with mercy for them).   J. Ta’anit 2:4; Genesis Rabbah 56:10 DORFFLGP 154
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GENESIS — 18:19 just

… the Torah is the first attempt of our ancestors to define what it means to walk in the ways of G-d, a G-d whose paths are, as Abraham already discerns, “what is just and right” [this verse]. This produces a robust wrestling with G-d and with the law whenever a law appears to be immoral, motivated by the conviction that a moral G-d could not plausibly be understood to desire what is patently immoral. Historically, this has led to narrowing a number of laws (such as the death penalty, the stubborn and rebellious son of Deuteronomy 21: 18-21, the illegitimate child of Deuteronomy 23:3 [The Rabbis make the evidentiary procedures necessary to convict someone of a capital offence so rigorous that they themselves admit that a court that decrees such a sentence once in seven years is “a blood court” (M. Makkot 1:10). They narrow the eligibility for qualifying as a “stubborn and rebellious son” so much that they ultimately maintain that there never was or will be such a person (B. Sanhedrin 71a).  The Rabbis narrow the definition of an illegitimate child (a mamzer) as much as possible, such that the product of a married man having sexual relations with an unmarried woman is not one, and neither is a child born out of wedlock to two unmarried people. Further, in practice, the rabbis do everything in their power to free a person from this category, including retroactively invalidating conversions and first marriages, so that they rarely if ever apply; imposing restrictions on other laws so that they become so onerous that nobody would want to take advantage of them (for example, slavery); “Because he is happy with you’ (Deuteronomy 15:16); he must be with   [that is, equal to] you in food and drink, such that you should not eat white bread and he black bread, you [should not] drink old wine and he new wine, you [should not] sleep on a feather bed and he on straw.   Therefore, it was said, “He who buys a Hebrew slave is like one who buys a master for himself’” Sifra, Behar 7:3; B. Kiddushin 20a, 22a; B. Arakhin 30b. The quoted version follows the reading in B. Kiddushin 20a expanding other laws (for example, applying the ban against putting a stumbling block in front of a blind person in Leviticus 19:14 to prohibit deceiving those who are intellectually or morally bind as well; Sifra on Leviticus 19:14 (that one may not mislead people in giving advice); B. Pesahim 22b (that one may not offer wine to a Nazarite, who has foresworn wine); B. Bava Mezia 75b (that one may not lend money in the absence of witnesses lest that encourage the borrower to claim that the loan was never made) reinterpreting others (such as an “eye for an eye” to mean not retribution but compensation); M. Bava Kamma 8:1, and the Talmud on that Mishnah. Even if the Torah is interpreted literally, it represents a moral advance from Hammurabi’s code, according to which a person of a lower class who punches out the eye of a person of a higher class is put to death.   In contrast, the Torah was saying only an eye for an eye, not death for an eye, and it removes all class considerations. The Rabbis, writing some 1,200 years after the Exodus law code was probably formulated, take this one step further by reinterpreting this to mean – through 10 separate proofs! – not retribution at all but rather monetary compensation and adding others (like the entire institution of the ketubbah, the marriage contract, to increase the protection of women in marriage).   M. Ketubbot 4:7-12   All of these rabbinic modulations of the law stem from their strong conviction that G-d would not want the law to allow, much less require, immoral things. DORFFLGP 138-9
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GENESIS — 18:19 just

Why did Jews of the past and why do I think that the Torah and subsequent Jewish law to our own day are not simply human creations but also the record of Jews’ response to G-d? In part because the Torah portrays it as such, leading our ancestors to believe that G-d is the source and authority of the law. In addition, as Simon Greenberg has pointed out Greenberg, ‘A Revealed Law,” (reprinted in Siegel, ed., Conservative Judaism and Jewish Law), several phenomena of the ongoing practice of Jewish law can only be adequately understood if we presume G-d’s involvement in some way. Specifically, the Jews’ “sense of overwhelming awe when they contemplated the grandeur and majesty of the Law” Greenberg, “A Revealed Law,” p. 41 (Siegel, p. 182) is certainly part of the religious feeling motivating those who observe it. Another element in the Jews’ commitment to Jewish law is their conviction that through it they perform a cosmic role in helping G-d complete creation. The strength of these perceptions of G-d’s role in creating Jewish law is especially evident in the numerous sacrifices that Jews have made to uphold it; only their belief that Jewish law expresses the will of G-d can explain their persistence in following it and their willingness even to die for it. Finally, Jews of the past and I myself attach divinity to Jewish law because, as G-d told Abraham, it helps define “the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right.” [this verse] – that is, it defines a path for life that is spiritually and morally rich, so rich that it is hard to believe that human beings in the ancient past would have been able to formulate it on their own. DORFFLGP 100-1
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GENESIS — 18:19 right

The goal of [Torah] law … is not to secure rights, as it is in American law, but rather to follow G-d’s will and gain the physical and spiritual rewards for doing so. As Maimonides later states this, the aim of G-d’s law is to create a good society, one that contributes to the welfare of the body and mind of all its inhabitants through the duties it imposes.   Guide for the Perplexed, part III, chap. 27. That theologically centered goal embodies in it the ultimate Messianic mission of Jewish law – to create a world in which swords are beaten into plowshares and in which there is no poverty, a world in which “G-d will instruct us in His ways and we will walk in His paths” Isaiah 2:2-4. What are G-d’s paths? In arguing with G-d about Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham already appeals to G-d’s justice and faithfulness [this verse], and G-d later describes Himself as merciful and loyal Exodus 34:5-7. Moses similarly proclaims that G-d is pure, that “all His ways are just, a faithful G-d, never false [without evil], true and upright [righteous and honest] is He” Deuteronomy 32:4 Later, Maimonides, following the lead of [this verse], summarizes all of the divine characteristics as justice and righteousness and maintains that those who emulate G-d in acting in accordance with those divine characteristics “bring goodness and blessing to themselves.” M.T. Laws of Ethics (De’ot) 1:7. See also M.T. Laws of Slaughter 14:16 and M.T. Laws of Shemitah and Yovel (Cancellation of Debts in the Sabbatical Year and the Jubilee) 13:13, in both of which Maimonides identifies “the ways of G-d” not as the commandments themselves but as the paths of righteousness. DORFFLGP 9
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GENESIS — 18:19 right

To convince most people to follow the rules, societies must create feelings of pride, respect, and even love for their community and its laws. That is hard to accomplish because government and law are abstract and inanimate. It is much easier to relate to people. Therefore secular societies typically teach the history of the group, its songs, stories, and exemplary personalities to instill strong commitments through recurring rituals.   Jews do that too: Jewish education usually includes a study of the same subjects just listed, and Jewish ritual patterns provide ample opportunity to renew national ties.   But there is a difference. Jews adhere to Jewish law out of a sense of kinship and loyalty not only to other Jews but to G-d. G-d is the covenanted partner, and that relationship provides the context for covenantal obligations.   The Bible develops the personal implications of the covenant fully. It speaks of G-d having chosen Israel as His special people out of an act of love, and Jews should observe the commandments because of that love.  [this and preceding verse, Deuteronomy 7:6-11]   DORFFLGP 96-7
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GENESIS — 18:19 righteousness

… the Enlightenment’s view of human beings as individuals with rights leads Western countries to think of law as preserving rights, with major implications for law’s limits and methods. In contrast, the Jewish tradition understands Jews as members of a thick, organic community that has chosen to respond to G-d’s commandments and fulfill its mission of fixing the world. This underlying perception of the source and purposes of the law directly affects it (sic) scope, content, procedures, and tone, and it makes Jewish law significantly different from Western legal systems like that of the United States.   Stories are a good way to get to the heart of a civilization and its laws. The first Jewish story is that of Abraham. Unlike the beliefs of all the other peoples of the ancient world, for whom the gods rule on the basis of their power alone, where “might makes right,” Abraham discovers that the ways of G-d are “to do what is just and right,” [this verse]. It is that which later prompts Maimonides to characterize Abraham as “the pillar of the world” M.T. Laws of Idolatry 1:2 (end). Maimonides uses the same term for Abraham in his Guide for the Perplexed, part 3, chap. 29, for everything after that in the Jewish tradition, including the law given by G-d to and through Moses, is based on that fundamental premise. G-d is moral, even if we do not always understand how, and we therefore must be moral too (imitation dei).  DORFFLGP 88
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