Monday, August 28, 2006


Weekly Parsha Blogging

This past week's parsha begins with the famous passage concluding "justice, justice shall you pursue." Indeed, this parsha encapsulates the central theme of Deuteronomy, "justice", which refers not only to formal justice but also to distributive justice, which the Etz Chaim translation suggests is the possible reason for the repetition of the word justice, to indicate both forms of justice. Interestingly, we Jews tend to refer to charity using the Hebrew root used in this passage, "Tzedakah".

But this passage also immediately mixes in a bit of religious legislation: not to be erecting sacred posts or planting sacred trees. What does this have to do with justice? Is the Deuteronomist indicating that justice involves not only formal and distributive justice, but also curtailments of religious freedom? If you ask yourself, WWJD? -- What Would Jeremiah Do? -- would Jeremiah have advocated legislating morality and undermining the first amendment?

IMHO (which is a phrase only used when one is not humble about one's opinions -- cue Alanis Morrisette on irony here), no! What is being prohibited is not an exercise in religious freedom per se, but a restriction on the use of public spaces to spread a particular religious belief. Indeed, placing this in the context of justice reminds me of the Ten Commandments in the Courts issue: some claim it is there "religious freedom" to place Ten Commandments monuments in court-houses. But the pursuit of justice requires that one not go about placing sacred posts in certain public locations. Does justice thus curtail religious freedom? I doubt that the 10 Commandments crowd would think the Deuteronomic legislation curtails religious freedom, they just fail to see how they are doing that which the Deuteronomist abhors. What they mistake for their liberty is the right to foist their beliefs down the thoughts of others. And a judge who thinks he has that right can be assumed to be as biased as a judge who has been bribed -- being bribed by God, or at least believing yourself to be so, is still being bribed. And note that all bribes are prohibited by any reasonable code of judicial conduct, not just bribes made by the parties ostensibly involved in a case.

Of course, the Deuteronomist at some points does seem to be favoring a state establishment of religion, but, if the Deuteronomist was writing at a time when said state establishment was on its way out, one can forgive this text a bit of nostalgia, especially when this is one of the few cases in which nostalgia is constructive. After all, the goal of the Deuteronomic school was not to create a religious establishment but to create a religion that could outlive that establishment. And that we Jews have survived so long and through so much hardship indicates that they were successful beyond their wildest dreams.

Just a side-note regarding that success: how could the Holocaust follow from Darwinism? We Jews actually are quite successful given what we've survived as a people -- so wouldn't a Darwinist say to let us alone? Actually, didn't Nietzsche make this sort of argument? Interestingly, the "Darwinism causes wars" argument, which makes no sense when you think about it, actually pre-dates WWII -- William Jennings Bryan blamed WWI on "Darwinism", for example.

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