Behar: A Radical Experiment

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar-Bechukotai

Then you shall sound the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month — the Day of Atonement — you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.  (Vayikra/ Leviticus 25:9-10)

Greeting from the sunny and beautiful Hudson Valley! It’s been a busy week, to Albany (see the post-script below) to NYC and back over the past few days but we’re still three hours ahead of last week’s commentary.

I almost never use the weekly commentaries to respond to current controversies* but recently a prominent Jewish pundit said something which deserves to be looked at in the light of Torah.  A few weeks ago, shortly after President Obama voiced moral support for same-sex marriage, a great advocate for the Jewish people, Dennis Prager, wrote that  marriage equality is  “the most radical social experiment in modern history”- and let’s be clear, he doesn’t think this is a good thing.

While others have pointed out the absurdity of Prager’s claim regarding “modern history,” I’d rather cast my glance even further back, to the Torah itself, which certainly could not envision marriage equality but contains much more radical social experiments, such as the Yovel  [Jubilee year], described in the verse above from this week’s Torah reading. Every fifty years, indentured servants were set free, debts were forgiven, and land was returned to the families who originally owned it- now, that is a radical social experiment in an ancient world quite comfortable with rigid economic castes and inescapable social hierarchies.

Of course, ancient Israel also had social classes- the priests and the kingship, to name two obvious examples- but the larger point is that the Torah begins to actualize the idea that every person is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine image. (Cf Bereshit/Genesis 1.) In this week’s parsha, the law of the Yovel points towards a larger ethical concept: that there should not be permanent classes of rich and poor, and to that end, human dignity may be sometimes more important than property rights.  Again, that’s a far more radical concept even in contemporary times than marriage equality could ever be.

I would even say that although the Torah itself could not envision monogamous, egalitarian same-sex relationships (see more on this here), the Yovel can be interpreted as a step towards a more inclusive concept of human society, one in which all participants are given a more fair chance at productive participation. There are certainly passionate  religious arguments for and against various forms of marriage equality, but it seems to me that a basic teaching of the Bible is that all people matter, a basic teaching which gets expanded over time throughout Jewish thought, and that this larger moral concern affects how we interpret specific verses or traditions.

Properly understood, Judaism, evolving over time and enlarging  its world of ethical concerns, is perhaps the most radical social experiment of them all, because it asks us to live as if we might meet the Divine in any and all people, if we seek to live with openness, justice and compassion.

Shabbat Shalom,


*an assertion to which some will doubtless respond: “what? never?” To which I say: “hardly ever!”

P.S.- Regarding that trip to Albany, you can see my invocation to the NY Senate here, in the first few minutes of the session. Senator Saland has some nice things to say afterwards.

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