How Tolerance Can Lead to Destruction
Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8 )
There are two sets of curses in the Torah. One set is recorded at the end of the Book of Vayikra in Parshat Bechukotai, and the latter part of our Parsha contains the second set.
The first set of curses is referred to as the Covenant of Sinai, whereas the curses in our Parsha are referred to as the Covenant of Arvot Moav. The names are self-explanatory: the first set of curses is an integral portion of the initial covenant we signed with God at Mt. Sinai; the subject on the table was the agreement to accept the Torah. The curses set forth in our Parsha are the backdrop to another covenant: the subject on the table this time was the delivery of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people. They were issued in Arvot Maov at the very end of the forty-year desert sojourn immediately prior to the entry to Israel.
We have explained the need for curses elsewhere at greater length (see the essay on Parshat Bechukotai). Curses are a necessary part of the covenantal process by definition; the covenants recorded in the Torah constitute legal agreements between God and the Jewish people. These agreements override the natural consequences of behaviors built into the system of the natural world God set up at creation. The covenant substitutes the curses as the consequences of the violation of Torah obligations. Both signatories, God and the Jewish people, agree to adhere to the covenantal obligations and accept the covenantal consequences of violations in place of natural consequences. That is why Jewish history does not fit the theories and models developed by secular historians to explain the history of societies. Arnold Toynbee called us the 'fossils of history'.
THE CURSES ARE NON-CONDITIONAL
Be that as it may, both these sets of curses describe cataclysmic events that will befall the Jewish people as a public entity. They are addressed to the Jewish public rather than to individuals; according to Nachmanides they are firm prophecies that describe real future events; they were never intended to be regarded as contingent possibilities. It was clear to the Jewish people who were informed about these future events in the desert 3,000 years ago that they would inevitably experience these events; they formed a part of their future.
In line with his approach to the curses as future events, Nachmanides leafs through the pages of Jewish history up to his own times and points out how and when the Jewish people suffered the events described in the curses in different historic eras. His basic thesis: the curses of Parshat Bechukotai foreshadow the destruction of the First Temple and its aftermath, while the curses of our Parsha describe events that occurred during the destruction of the Second Temple and its aftermath.
Apart from the philosophical problem of predestination versus free will that is presented by such a thesis, the curses present an even deeper philosophical dilemma. Public tragedies are the consequences of public transgressions. Our sense of justice is outraged by the thought of the entire Jewish people having to suffer for the actions of individuals, no matter how numerous. According to principles of elementary justice only public transgressions can provide justification for public punishments. But how is it possible for a people to transgress as a people? Where is the locus of people consciousness? Is there any real content to the concept of a national conscience?
NUMBERS THAT DON'T ADD UP
I once heard the following explanation from Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg of blessed memory: the basic concept is derived from a historic incident recorded in the Scriptures.
The reign of Ahab and Jezebel was one of the most depraved periods of the First Temple era. This infamous royal couple introduced the worship of the idol Baal into the Kingdom of Israel, and established it as the official state religion. Jezebel has been held up as a model of the treacherous woman ever since. See a detailed description of the period in 1 Kings, Chapters 18 and 19. So apparently widespread did this Baal religion become that God informed the Prophet Elijah:
"But I will leave over in Israel seven thousand people, all the knees that did not kneel to the Baal and every mouth that did not kiss it." (1 Kings 19:18)
In 2 Kings Chapter 10, we learn of the ascension of Jehu to the throne of Israel following the death of Ahab's son, and the story is told how this same Jehu destroyed all the worshippers of the Baal. His stratagem: he publicly announced that he would dedicate his reign to the worship of the Baal to an even greater degree than Ahab. As part of the ceremonies of his inauguration he proclaimed a holiday in honor of the Baal and summoned all the worshippers of the Baal from all the corners of Israel to attend a major feast. We are told that the entire gathering fit into a single building. He then surrounded the building with eighty guards and instructed them to kill everyone who attended the gathering on their way out. Apparently all the worshippers of the Baal were able to assemble within the confines of a single building and eighty guards constituted a sufficient force to kill them all.
The numbers simply don't add up. God informs Elijah that there are only seven thousand people uninfected by Baal worship, whose mouths did not kiss the Baal, and yet from a population of at least several million, Jehu only manages to scrape together a single building-full of Baal worshippers. How can we explain this glaring discrepancy?
Rabbi Weinberg explained that the answer is to be found in the concept of social tolerance.
THE IMPLICATIONS OF SOCIAL SANCTION
Let us present a simple metaphor to explain his thesis. In our day secular society sanctions abortions as legal. While studies show that the vast majority of people consider it morally wrong to abort unborn children - many consider it murder - secular society has enshrined the right of those who choose to abort to execute this choice without suffering any adverse social consequences. It is therefore fair to say that secular society finds the practice of abortion morally acceptable as a society - we certainly do not condone murder - and could not in good conscience object if everyone chose to abort their babies.
It is irrelevant that the majority of individuals consider the practice of abortion immoral. The protection of the defenseless is an acknowledged public responsibility. If the legal system withdraws such protection from unborn babies, then society as a group sanctions the destruction. According to the prevailing social norm it is obviously okay to kill unborn babies.
In the same way, a Jewish society that tolerates the establishment of Baal worship as the official state religion is justly regarded by God as a society of idol worshippers. Anyone who reads the Torah must surely realize that the elimination of idol worship is a serious Jewish social responsibility. If people have the legal right to serve the Baal without suffering any detrimental social consequences then it must be acceptable for everyone to do so. The fact that the number of idol worshippers is relatively few is a matter of circumstance, and not due to the social ethic.
That is how the numbers can be reconciled. There were only seven thousand people who stood up against the idea of idol worship and refused to tolerate it and give it social sanction. They were forced to go into hiding because of their voluble protest against the social acceptability of the practice. Everyone else silently tolerated it.
LIMITS TO TOLERANCE
In fact, the issues involved should be familiar to all of us who follow current events. Many serious intellectuals have argued for years that we should legalize prostitution and drugs as many European countries have done. The arguments in favor sound quite reasonable and compelling.
The demand for these services is endemic to all modern societies. There is a lot of organization involved in providing the service. The people have to be recruited, the drugs manufactured etc. When they are placed outside the pale they necessarily fall under the control of organizecrime. Criminals charge unconscionable prices, they never worry about health and safety and as they have no legal means of enforcing the payment of debts, unacceptable levels of violence are an inevitable aspect of all illegal industries. As there is no way to effectively stamp out the demand, surely we would be wiser to bring these activities under social control by legalizing and licensing the industries involved.
Despite the apparently compelling logic there seems little likelihood that either of these activities will be legalized in the near future. We are even unwilling to legalize marijuana. Why not? Are we all so prudish and unintelligent?
The answer is obvious. Society is not willing to legalize these activities because it is not ready to afford them moral sanction. We want to state clearly and unequivocally that these activities are evil and morally unacceptable. We are not ready to contemplate living in a society where we must tolerate everyone who partakes of drugs and employs the services of prostitutes as normal everyday citizens of good standing. We realize that legalizing these activities amounts to condoning them and declaring ourselves ready to accept everyone engaging in them. We want them to be associated with criminal activity. Just as drugs and prostitution remain beyond the pale of what society is ready to recognize and accept as 'normal' behaviors, by implication it is clear that whatever is legalized is condoned and tolerated on some level.
SOCIAL NORMS AND CAREER CHOICES
The idea of social morality and social accountability is beginning to emerge. We are not accountable for the way individuals behave as long as their activities are not the social norm. It isn't always practically possible to force people to live morally. But God does hold societies accountable for the modes of behavior they sanction as acceptable even if they are only practiced by minorities. If it is legal and acceptable there is no reason other than distaste why everyone isn't indulging; society does not consider it wrong.
And yet, this is still only a surface picture; this presentation only covers the civic aspect of the issues. The Torah is primarily a spiritual document and the spiritual implications extend much deeper. Among human beings the social norm and the social evaluation of desirability often serves as a substitute for serious thought. Very few of us devote much thought to what we ought to be doing with our lives. Most of us are content to take the social norm as a reliable guide.
For example: surveys indicate that the best minds in the Western world are currently being invested in business related careers. Imagine asking the talented person who applies to business school why he chose a career in business over medicine, science or education. He would likely answer that he picked the career that is likely to bring him the highest income. Imagine asking him next, "why is the high income so important? After all, the alternative careers also make enough money to live on a decent standard, so what about idealism? What about spiritual satisfaction?" He is likely to respond, "What do you mean? That is what is considered success; I am merely aiming for a successful life." If we were then to ask, "Why do you consider a successful career in business a successful life?" Nine out of ten people will answer, "That's what everyone says." If we finally ask, "Yes, but how do you know that 'everyone' is right?" Our respondent is likely to get impatient and answer, "How can everyone be wrong?"
A society that honors scholarship will produce many scholars, one that honors social service and gives tribute to people who dedicate themselves to the promotion of social justice will develop many idealists, whereas a society that worships money and power will drive its most talented minds to become MBA's. Human beings crave recognition and will conduct their lives according to the prevailing social ethic. You can draw the profile of a society by studying the lives of the people with the greatest potential; the ones with the greatest talent who are the freest to make career choices. The careers and lifestyles of such people accurately reflect the prevailing social norms.
The curses outlined in the Torah describe future eras characterized by intense individual suffering as well as the mass destruction of Jewish communities. Both sets of curses end with a guarantee of Jewish survival and refer to the eventual redemption. God has formally committed Himself to the survival of the Jewish people and the eventual coming of the Messiah despite all the suffering and destruction the Torah predicts.
Nevertheless, every instance of mass destruction in Jewish history wiped out the existing social structure that the Jewish people had erected permanently. Individual Jews survived and repeatedly reconstructed new Jewish societies on the ashes of the old. But Jewish institutions, the public expressions of Jewish society, were destroyed utterly. God's commitment to Jewish survival evidently cannot be extended to social structures.
When the First Temple - the ultimate public expression of the Jewish social norms prevailing at the time - was destroyed, it was gone for good. The second Temple was not a replacement. The Shechinah, God's Presence, never rested on the second Temple; there was no prophecy in the second Temple era, and miraculous events, which were the hallmark of the first Temple era vanished from the world. The majority of the Jewish people never returned from exile and elected to remain abroad in Babylon. Jewish society was reorganized and rebuilt, but in an entirely different mode. It was not a continuation of the previous Jewish world; it started again from scratch.
The same applies to the destruction of the second Temple, the subject of the curses of this week's Torah portion according to Nachmanides. We know more about the details of this tragedy; the mass destruction wreaked on Jewish society by the Roman Empire is described in horrendous detail in the works of Josephus Flavius. The Temple disappeared for good and organized Jewish national life in Israel came to an end for 2,000 years. We became the Wandering Jew.
This was certainly the case in the most recent destruction experienced by the Jewish people. The Holocaust suffered by our people a mere half-century ago left no surviving Jewish institutions at all. As a people we were compelled to rebuild all our institutions, both religious and secular from the ground up.
INDIVIDUAL ETHICS AND SOCIAL NORMS
Only prophets speaking in God's name would presume to explain the precise reasons for the occurrence of the horrendous events of Jewish history foretold in the curses; that is certainly not our intention here. But it seems clear that none of these tragedies were the sole responsibility of the individual Jews who were alive at the time and who suffered their effects. Every event of Divinely ordained mass destruction is brought about by the gradual crumbling and disintegration of the social ethic, an evolving process that gradually unfolds over several generations.
The Talmud (Yuma 9b) tells us that the commission of the cardinal sins of idolatry, licentiousness and bloodshed caused the destruction of the First Temple, while the destruction of the Second Temple was brought about by groundless hatred between fellow Jews. Each of these structures stood for 500 years and it was not only the generation that experienced the destruction who were guilty of these crimes.
Indeed, in the case of the destruction of the First Temple, it seems difficult to believe that the last generation to see it standing was more culpable than the generation of Ahab and Jezebel who lived centuries earlier. If anything, the writings of the prophets attest to the fact that the later generations were better than the earlier ones. The point is that the social fabric continued to deteriorate. The social tolerance for the commission of the cardinal sins increased over time.
On the level God connected with the Jewish people in the first Temple era, a social ethic that could not tolerate the practice of idolatry was indespensable to the relationship. Individuals are responsible for the commission of sins, but the entire Jewish people is held accountable for the prevailing social ethic. When the tolerance of idolatry reached such proportions that it was no longer acceptable to ostracize people for practicing idolatry, in terms of social norms Jewish society could justifiably be termed a society of idol worshippers, even if the actual practitioners were relatively few. God connects with the Jewish people as a nation, not with particular individuals. When the social norm deteriorated He could no longer maintain His connection with the Jewish people; the result was the destruction of the Temple and the social fabric that was built around it.
THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE RIGHTEOUS
This concept is clearly set forth in the following passage of the Talmud:
Rabbi Zeira said to Rabbi Shimon: "The Rabbi [you] should reprove these officials of the House of the Exilarch for their transgressions." He replied that they would not accept his reproof. Rabbi Zeira thereupon said: "Even if they do not accept it the rabbi should nevertheless reprove them. For Rabbi Acha bar Chanina said, 'A good decree never issued from the mouth of God and was then retracted for a bad one except in this matter.'"
It is written: God said to the angel, "Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and mark the letter 'tav' on the foreheads of the people who sigh and moan over all the abominations that are done in its midst." (Ezekiel 9:4) God said to the angel Gabriel: "Go and mark a 'tav' of ink on the foreheads of the righteous, so that the angels of destruction should have no power over them; and on the foreheads of the wicked a 'tav' of blood, so that the angels of destruction should have power over them." Said the Attribute of Justice before God, "Master of the Universe what is the difference between these and these?" God replied, "These are completely righteous and these are completely wicked." Justice than argued, "But the righteous had the opportunity to protest and they didn't protest!" God replied, "It is revealed and known to Me that if they had protested, the sinners would not have accepted it from them." Justice then argued, "If it is revealed before You, is it revealed to them?"
The Talmud concludes by quoting verses that demonstrate that not only was Justice victorious in its argument, but that the destruction began with the righteous, thus demonstrating the reversal of the good decree. (Shabbat, 55a)
But why didn't the righteous protest? After all God Himself testified that they were totally righteous. One of the commandments of the Torah is to chastise your friend up to a hundred times if necessary when you see him doing something wrong. How could God call these people totally righteous when they were not fulfilling this commandment?
The answer once again is the social ethic.
WHAT IF NO ONE WILL LISTEN?
The righteous knew that the people who were practicing abominations believed that they were doing nothing wrong. Society taught them that what they were doing was legal and fell within the confines of socially acceptable behavior. Our treatment of homosexuals today provides an excellent model for the behavior of the righteous. As a percentage of society the 'gay' community is tiny. Nevertheless, a person cannot be discriminated against in any way for being 'gay'. You cannot fire a 'gay' teacher. You cannot refuse an application for adoption by a 'gay' parent. So the righteous thought to themselves, "What is the point of protesting, they certainly will not listen. What they are doing is legal! It is against the law to chastise them!" And they were right! God Himself testified that they would not listen! So why should they have protested?
We must turn to the social ethic for the answer. The only way to alter the social ethic is by protest. For even when people do not listen, when a good man expresses an opinion it makes an impact. If enough good men raise their voices in protest and object to something that is wrong, eventually the media covers their protests; the subject of their protest becomes a matter of public debate; they often succeed in altering the social ethic and changing the world.
CHANGING THE WORLD
Whoever was alive in the 1960's remembers the Civil Rights movement. Dedicated, righteous people, genuinely pained by the oppression of minorities marched and protested until their voice was finally heard. Their protests went against the social norm that had been in place for a hundred years; and yet it uprooted and replaced that standard entirely. The doctrine advanced by the protesters 'blowing in the wind' is the politically correct position of today and is universally accepted as being right.
The month of Elul is not only a time for individual repentance but also for the elevation of the public conscience. The Holocaust should have taught all of us that it is impossible for a Jew to secede from the Jewish people. In times of public travail, we stand and fall together. Just as Elul is a time of introspection about one's private life, it should prompt a re-examination of our connection to the Jewish public. How much do I care about the Jewish people? How much do I identify with their fate? How am I contributing to the raising of the Jewish social ethic? Public apathy triggers the curses, and brings on the mass destructions that affect all of us in the long run. We should wake up and smell the coffee now.