Sunday, February 16, 2020

Mishpatim: Toward a Communitarian Ethics


Those who want to sharpen their minds should study laws of damages, as there is no section of the Torah larger than them; they are like an ever-flowing spring.
-Bava Batra 10:8

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, introduces the cases that will form the basis for the Talmud’s laws of damages.  In the first instance, we learn that if you open a pit on your land and leave it uncovered, you must pay restitution if another person’s animal falls into it.  Next, Torah teaches that if your ox is in the habit of goring other animals, you are required to recompense their owner of for any gored beasts.  Similarly, if your herd grazes on another’s land, you must compensate the landowner for the damage.  Finally, if you start a fire that spreads onto your neighbor’s property, you must pay restitution to that neighbor.

The Rabbis applied these principles to a vast array of case law around damages in three tractates of the Talmud: Bava Kamma, Bava Metzia, and Bava Batra (in English: the first, middle, and last gate).  To enter through these “gates” is to explore questions of utmost concern around our response to the existential danger of human-caused climate change.

Bava Batra, in particular, focuses on property rights.  Here in Idaho—and throughout much of the western United States—personal property rights are too often seen as sacrosanct.  This attitude is tied to the malignant myth of rugged individualism, the libertarian notion that everyone has an absolute right to do whatever they wish on their own land, and that dependence upon others is a sign of weakness. Jewish law disagrees.  In the balance that our tradition establishes, individual rights must be weighed against communal concerns—and when there is a tension between the two, the latter usually take precedence.  Thus Bava Batra insists that I refrain from planting a tree on my land if its roots will destroy my neighbor’s cistern.  A landowner cannot open a tannery on his property if the rank odor and pollution produced by that industry would be a nuisance to nearby residents.  Farmers must even consider their neighbor’s needs when deciding what to plant in their own fields—if, for instance, the neighbor is a beekeeper, one should attempt to refrain from sowing crops that make for bitter honey.

We cannot ameliorate catastrophic climate change until we learn to think in a more communitarian manner.  If everyone feels free to do whatever is in his or her best personal economic interest, we will destroy our planet.  We’ve seen this pattern for far too long; indeed, it has already wrought irrevocable harm.  Still, it’s not too late—if we recognize the imperative to curb our individual desires for the sake of the common good.  No one can turn back climate change on their own.  Our very survival depends on our ability to think more like our Talmudic ancestors—in the spirit of this week’s portion.

Divided, we will fall.  To choose life is to choose together, for one another, for future generations, and for all of God’s creation.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Yitro: Honoring Parents--and the Earth



At the heart of this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, God gives us the Torah on Mount Sinai.  At the core of that revelation is aseret ha-dibrot, the Ten Commandments (or in Hebrew, “utterances.”)  And at the very center of those foundational laws we find the commandment:
Honor your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that the Holy One, your God is giving you

Our Sages saw the fifth commandment as a kind of bridge between the two tablets.  They categorize the first four utterances as bein adam la-Makom—principles that apply “between humanity and God”: the affirmation of God’s existence, the prohibition of idolatry, the injunction to refrain from taking God’s name in vain, and the commandment to observe Shabbat.  The final five utterances, by contrast, they categorize as bein adam le-chavero—principles governing the way we treat one another: prohibitions on murder, adultery, theft, false witness, and covetousness.  But the fifth utterance falls somewhere in the middle.  Honoring parents would seem to belong with the laws around human interaction, yet it is grouped with the mitzvot around our relationships with God.  The Rabbis suggest that parents act as God’s partners in creating life.  We are obligated to respect our parents in this capacity.  Even when they fail dismally in raising (or failing to raise) us, we still owe them a debt of gratitude for bringing us into existence, together with the Holy One.

In his book The Way into Judaism and the Environment, Jeremy Benstein suggests that we need a new category of mitzvot—bein adam le-olam—for those moral and ethical obligations we have toward the Earth and the rest of God’s creation.  He asks: “Where is the consciousness that we have a larger task, a mission for humanity regarding the world?  Given the global challenges facing us, we need a framework, a guiding vision, a purpose.”

Perhaps the Torah itself suggests such a category in the way the fifth commandment links honoring parents with the promise of a long life on the land that God gives us.  We tend to associate environmental repair with children, rather than parents; many ecological exhortations urge us to tend to the earth for the sake of those who will inherit it.  This seems natural—and yet it has not (yet) proven to be a very effective formula.  We have, for the most part, been irresponsible when it comes to living sustainably in order to leave our descendants with a better world.

Torah offers us a different path.  If our relationship with the land depends upon respecting our parents, then that bond between us and the earth is best built through gratitude rather than guilt.  We should honor the rest of God’s creation for the same reason that we should honor even bad parents: for giving us the ongoing gift of life itself.  If we are truly thankful for the planet that sustains us, we will act in a manner that allows future generations to express that same gratitude.

This is our challenge.