Dear Jew in the City,
Thank you for all of your posts and videos — they have been unfailingly helpful as I have been trying to navigate the often-confusing ba’alas teshuvah process. Here is a question I have for you, though. How do you respond when people claim that Judaism and the “old testament” are the vengeful part of the Bible and Christianity has a monopoly on love? As many times as you can point out that commandments like v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha (love your neighbor as yourself) are pretty evidently loving, I find that very sincere, well-meaning people will still zero in on things like stoning a disobedient child…
Lover Not a Fighter
Dear Not a Fighter,
The “fun” thing about religion (he said sarcastically) is that both supporters and detractors can cherry-pick verses to “prove” that the religion means whatever they want it to mean. In our current political climate, this is most noticeable with Islam. There are plenty of Muslims who preach that Islam is a religion of peace, and they have the verses in Qur’an to support it. For example, Qur’an 3:199 says, “And indeed, among the People of the Book are those who believe in Allah and what was revealed to you and what was revealed to them, humbly submissive to Allah. They do not exchange the verses of Allah for a small price. Those will have their reward with their Lord. Indeed, Allah is swift in account.” (“People of the Book” refers to non-Muslim monotheists, specifically Jews and Christians.)
Conversely, if you’ve seen ISIS beheadings and attacks around the world, you’re probably aware that there are those who consider Islam to be a religion of hate; they, likewise have verses to support their position. For example, Qur’an 5:51 says, “O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are allies of one another and whoever is an ally to them among you, then he is one of them. Indeed, Allah does not guide the wrongdoing people.” One could find many more verses to support either side of this debate.
But your question is about Judaism vis-à-vis Christianity. Is Judaism really the religion of vengeance and Christianity the religion of love? As with Islam, I can cherry-pick verses from both the “Old” and “New” Testaments to prove whatever I want.
It may surprise you to learn that Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to send peace on earth. I did not come to send peace, but a sword. I am sent to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Matthew 10:34-35). That sounds pretty violent to me!
A funny story: At the time of the Iraq War, I attended a clergy panel about whether or not we should participate in such a conflict. A colleague, a priest, said we should not, based on various New Testament verses. I challenged his sources with the aforementioned “I did not come to send peace, but a sword.” He replied, “That’s clearly a metaphor. Jesus didn’t carry a sword; his disciples didn’t carry swords….” I replied with a quote from John 18:10, “Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear.”
Similarly, in the Parable of the Ten Minas, Jesus says “I tell you that to everyone who has, more shall be given, but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away. But these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them in my presence”(Luke 19:26-27). (There are those who will tell you that, as part of a parable, these aren’t Jesus’ own words but those of the character in his story. However, the character who says these words is the exemplar for Jesus himself.)
My point in doing this is not to bash Christianity. It is simply to illustrate that a Jew, a Muslim, a Christian, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Wiccan, an atheist – you name it – can find verses to make their own belief system look good or someone else’s look bad. Out of context, anything can be made to mean whatever you want it to mean. This is what’s going on when people posit Judaism as the product of a God of vengeance. They are cherry-picking verses out of context to support their preconceived conclusions.
Another factor is that the text of the Torah doesn’t give the complete story. For example, the Torah prohibits performing acts of labor on Shabbos, but it doesn’t define what acts of labor are. You cite the case of the ben sorer u’moreh (stubborn and rebellious son), in Deuteronomy chapter 21. If the full details of a weekly mitzvah that affects everyone (i.e., Shabbos) are not provided in the text, it should not surprise you that the details of an obscure mitzvah like ben sorer u’moreh are not explicit. I provide just a few of the details in my book, The Shnayim Mikra Companion:
If a person has a thoroughly rotten son who absolutely will not toe the line, the parents may have him flogged in an attempt to rein him in. If he’s completely incorrigible, he may even be put to death because his evil fate is inevitable. (To be eligible for this punishment, the boy must steal money from his father, use it to buy meat, which he must consume undercooked with a certain quantity of wine in front of his father’s house with a circle of bad friends. There are a lot of other conditions, too. The Talmud in Sanhedrin 71a tells us that the case of the rebellious son never happened and was only included in the Torah for the lesson it imparts.)
Let’s read that last line again, “The Talmud in Sanhedrin 71a tells us that the case of the rebellious son never happened and was only included in the Torah for the lesson it imparts.” So, people get bent out of shape over a mitzvah that Jewish tradition tells us was never actually performed and was never intended to be performed. It seems an awfully hypothetical basis for drawing any “big picture” conclusions about Judaism!
The sheer volume of capital crimes makes a lot of people consider Judaism to be violent. What they don’t tell you are all the parameters necessary for someone to be executed. The person has to be warned not to do the thing he’s about to do because it carries a potential death sentence, then he has to go ahead and do it anyway, in the presence of witnesses. He’s tried before a court of 23 judges; it takes a simple majority (12 to 11) to acquit but it requires a supermajority (13 to 10) to convict. Judges who initially voted to convict can change their votes to acquit but those who voted to acquit cannot change their votes to convict. There are many other laws favoring the defense over the prosecution. Capital punishment was so uncommon that the Talmud (Makkos 7a) says if there was an execution more frequently than once every 70 years, it was a bloody court.
You cite the dictum to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Leviticus 9:18). The Torah likewise prohibits favoring powerful people in court cases (Leviticus 19:15), taking something that a poor person needs as collateral for a loan (Deuteronomy 24:12), and oppressing widows and orphans (Exodus 22:21) or converts (Exodus 22:20) – even verbally. A skim of the 613 mitzvos will reveal hundreds that are clearly meant to protect the weaker members of society and only a handful that cry out for explanation. But even the seemingly-troubling ones are far less troubling once one takes the time to look into them.
“But,” I hear you ask, “if anyone can cherry-pick verses to make a religion appear as they wish, how do we know you’re not doing the same thing?” Good question! And the answer is, because I don’t want you to take my sample verses at face value. I encourage you to delve into the Torah, with all of its commentaries and codes of law, to get a big-picture view of things, including the things that require more explanation.
By familiarizing yourself with what the Torah says – and what it actually means – you will become well-equipped to respond to the troubling questions, whether they come from people misrepresenting Torah or from our own minds.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, Educational Correspondent for JITC
Rabbi Abramowitz analyzes the 613 mitzvos – including the more troubling ones – in his book The Taryag Companion.