Well, except for one comment: Note that this is posted in the Judaism subforum, which "assumes the ongoing validity of Judaism." This is not offered for debate, but for information only.
If anyone does not agree with this approach -- well, that is your right and peace to you, but this is not up for debate.
This is unedited from a couple of posts of mine of about six years ago — from July of 2009, to be precise. I offer it again without further comment.
I have often remarked here that Jewish teachings and tradition are not dependent on the Torah or Tanakh, though we Jews do take the Bible seriously; and that it is not fair to take a given passage of Scripture and say, "This is what Judaism teaches" or "This is what God says." The Bible is the beginning of the debate on ethics and morality, and not its end; humans have the responsibility for their own moral decisions and actions, though with an eye to the tradition. The Bible is not to be read and followed slavishly, and that admonition can be traced to the Bible itself.
The following, which is this week's Torah Study from the Jewish Theological Seminary, explains about as well as I can imagine how this approach and process works.
July 11, 2009
19 Tammuz 5769
This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Daniel S. Nevins, Pearl Resnick Dean, The Rabbinical School, JTS
Is there ever a discernible gap between God's morality and the Torah, or is the Torah itself our only window into the realm of divine values? Put another way, is it permissible for a reverent Jew to challenge the morality of a law, and to base this challenge on his or her own understanding of justice and thus God's will?
This is a fundamental question for Judaism, as it is for all faiths that base themselves on a sacred literature. If we say that the Torah as it has been received is the first and final word, then precedent always enjoys the presumption of divine favor. If, however, we say that the Torah provides multiple lessons on the nature of morality, and that some are in tension with others, then it becomes our highest religious obligation to study these lessons and seek out the divine voice within them. The former position is common in Orthodoxy, but the latter view, more common in Conservative Jewish discourse, is also typical of classical rabbinic literature.
A fascinating case in point in this week's portion regards the claim of the daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 27: 1–11; see also the recap in Numbers 36). This man from the tribe of Manasseh has five daughters but no son. Earlier in the parashah a census of males for the purpose of military conscription is followed by the verse, "to these shall the land be apportioned" (26:53). Apparently this means that only families with male heirs will be granted a portion in the land. Because identity is associated with inheritance, this rule effectively means that Zelophehad's family will soon disappear from both the land and the memory of Israel.
The patent unfairness of this law emboldens Zelophehad's five daughters to rise up and present their case to Moses: "Let not our father's name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father's kinsmen!" Moses is apparently flummoxed by this indignant claim, and without even a cursory reply, he turns to the Lord for help. The Lord replies unambiguously: "The plea of Zelophehad's daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father's kinsmen; transfer their father's share to them." As the rabbis observe with awe, "happy is the person whose claim is accepted by God!"
But what gives these women any hope that their claim could be accepted? Hasn't the law already been established by God at Sinai? Sure, the law seems unfair. But what's fair got to do with it? Why should anyone think that his or her own sense of fairness is relevant when the Torah has already been revealed by God to Moses on Mount Sinai?
This question is the impetus for a remarkable early midrash found in Sifre BeMidbar (133):
The daughters of Zelophehad approached. When the daughters of Zelophehad heard that the Land was to be divided among the tribes, to males and not to females, they gathered together to take counsel in each other. They said, "Not like the mercies of people are the mercies of God. People have more mercy [i.e., preference] for males than females, but the One Who spoke and the World came to Be is not like this; rather, [God's] mercies are for both males and for females, and for all, as it says, “The Lord is good to all; His mercies are over all his creations.” (Psalms 145:9)
This early rabbinic text imagines the women citing the book of Psalms to vindicate their trust that God is egalitarian: "His mercies are over all his creations." Preferential treatment for males is not, according to their interpretation, a policy established by God, but rather a bias established by men. The nineteenth-century commentator Barukh HaLevi Epstein asks what makes these women think that people (i.e., rabbis) favor men? He answers his own question with three Talmudic texts that give preferential treatment to men and concludes that "men tend to worry about their own reality more than that of women" (Torah Temimahl to Numbers 27:1, number 1).
One delightful feature of this text is its blithe anachronism. The daughters of Zelophehad cite the book of Psalms, which will not be written for many more centuries, and is not, in any event, a legal text. According to Epstein, they also know their way around the Babylonian Talmud! In the realm of Torah, all ideas and all actors are expected to interact. The conversation of living Torah transcends time and space in its pursuit of the truth. These women know that God is just to all, and they know equally well that the revealed law of inheritance is unjust to women. The rabbis, both ancient and modern, do not dispute the accuracy of the women's complaint of discrimination. Still, it is remarkably audacious for the women to make their claim to Moses, and to assert that divine justice is on their side.
Imagine if Moses were an insecure leader, which would have been quite justified after the past few weeks of rebellions. What would an insecure leader do? Wouldn't he shunt these women and their impertinent request aside? Wouldn't he bristle at their challenge to the fairness of his teaching? It is a mark of the greatness of Moses that instead he listens to the challenge and, upon hearing its reasoning, he turns back to God and waits to discern a new teaching.
What does this mean for us? Are the narratives of the Torah and the interpretations of ancient rabbis just a part of our religious history, or are they meant to teach us how to act today? When we learn of an injustice perpetuated under the banner of religious precedent, should we simply accept this as an unfortunate reality, or should we too seek a solution that is just to all? What would Moses do?
Unfortunately, we are not Moses, nor do we have the inspiration of even the minor prophets of Israel. While it is often tempting to make prophetic pronouncements about justice, our religious culture has evolved a more deliberate process for addressing tensions between precedent and morality, called halakhah. This process is exceptionally delicate. When we become strident in our pronouncements of justice, we lose access to the wisdom of our ancestors and allow a rupture to open in the community of Torah. But when we are obstinate and unwilling to listen to the concerns of the oppressed, then our Torah becomes petrified, like living wood now turned to stone.
It is exceptionally hard to follow the middle path that is both reverent and responsive. It assumes that God's morality is found both in the precedents described in our sacred literature and in the lived reality of our day. Like Moses, we must be attuned to the lives of those who turn to us for guidance, and then we must return in reflection to the voice of the One Who Spoke and the World Came to Be. While we may never hear our vindication spoken from the heavens, we may still hope to discern in time that our words of Torah were wise, reverent, and just.
Wow, equality for women in the "way back when". I'm impressed. I've learned to really like the Jewish religion for its attempt at working in the here and now, and not relying solely on ancient methods to inform today's decisions.
Yes, indeed, Besides the concern for what are today called "women's rights" (and isn't it strange that those who claim that the Hebrew Bible is unrelievedly "sexist" miss this passage), there is the central issue of slavishly following Scripture while explicitly overruling one's own moral sense, as is common among fundamentalists.
"If the Bible says x, we are forbidden to think further." This passage proves, by the very standards of Biblical literalists, that that idea is both wrong and unBiblical.
The core of this discussion is here:
"Is there ever a discernible gap between God's morality and the Torah, or is the Torah itself our only window into the realm of divine values? Put another way, is it permissible for a reverent Jew to challenge the morality of a law, and to base this challenge on his or her own understanding of justice and thus God's will?"
In short, are believers allowed to question the Bible's apparent admonitions and standards at all?
And here is where the problem is so often found:
"Sure, the law seems unfair. But what's fair got to do with it? Why should anyone think that his or her own sense of fairness is relevant when the Torah has already been revealed by God to Moses on Mount Sinai?"
Religious conservatives often speak as if taking one's own moral perceptions seriously when they vary from simplistic Biblical teachings is akin to arrogant blasphemy. This passage, from the Bible itself, gives the lie to that unreflective, dogmatic approach.
God does not command injustice. To insist that He does, and that that injustice may not be remedied because it has been commanded by God - now, THAT is blasphemy.
And here is the tension:
"When we become strident in our pronouncements of justice, we lose access to the wisdom of our ancestors and allow a rupture to open in the community of Torah...."
Put in less sectarian terms, i.e., those that are not limited to Jews: When we throw out the Bible and all religious tradition as fantasy, fabrication, fiction, and mere indoctrination in the interest of preserving the power of the ruling class, we are dumping millenia of development of deeply serious and often deeply wise moral and ethical thought in favor of current perceptions, which may owe as much to fashion and political correctness as to rational thought, compassion, and actual moral clarity and courage.
On the other hand:
"...But when we are obstinate and unwilling to listen to the concerns of the oppressed, then our Torah becomes petrified, like living wood now turned to stone."
Elevating the Bible to an absolute final authority that may not be questioned or revised is tantamount to abdication of the human responsibility to use the minds God gave us - and is, in a sense, idolatry of the most objectionable kind.
The Jewish religion strives for balance in these matters.
"It is exceptionally hard to follow the middle path that is both reverent and responsive. It assumes that God's morality is found both in the precedents described in our sacred literature and in the lived reality of our day. Like Moses, we must be attuned to the lives of those who turn to us for guidance, and then we must return in reflection to the voice of the One Who Spoke and the World Came to Be. While we may never hear our vindication spoken from the heavens, we may still hope to discern in time that our words of Torah were wise, reverent, and just."
Notice that there are no claims of infallibility or moral superiority here. On the contrary; humility, serious thought and reflection, and a continuing effort to improve and refine our judgments and ideas are both advocated and assumed.
Just as with matters of scientific advancement and historical research, for Jews, on moral and ethical matters there is no automatic and inescapable conflict between modern thought, traditional teachings, and religious beliefs.
Indeed, the idea that there even COULD be such a conflict is puzzling to us. Our God is a God of TRUTH; and learning, which reveals truth - in any field - is both good and holy, and deeply reverent.
Refusing to learn and think, in favor of dogmatism (as opposed to thoughtful belief), is not piety; on the contrary, that abdication of our human capabilities and responsibilities is what ought to be properly regarded as rebellion against God and His will, and not the reverse.