Thursday, 08 Sep 2022

Written by Dr Hannah Altorf

In this week’s parashah we are admonished to take care of the stranger, the fatherless and the widow. Moses tells the people: ‘You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn.’ (Deuteronomy 24: 17) We are told to leave them a sheaf in the field, olives from the trees and grapes from the vineyard. (Deuteronomy 24: 20-21)

All too often, when reading Torah, we might sigh in despair because the text is problematic in so many different ways. Yet, when encountering sections like these, we can feel proud of our tradition. Indeed, this passage is something to mention whenever there is the complaint that Torah is not just outdated, but also discriminatory and violent. Passages like this can counter such accusations. The shorthand of stranger, fatherless and widow is easily translated into contemporary society. They are those whose rights are all too easily violated: the refugee or the stateless person, those who lack a voice or those whose existence is completely dominated by lack of money and resources. Torah teaches here what is still central to our progressive communities today: to care for those who are most vulnerable. To put it in common parlance: we got the big calls right.

The difficulty is of course that, as the tired saying goes, the devil is in the details. Leaving part of the harvest for the stranger is only one of the ways in Moses’ list of caring for the more vulnerable. The parashah opens with another vulnerable woman, the beautiful woman who is desired by a warrior and captured in war. (Deuteronomy 21: 10-14) Later on we encounter the young woman, who is neither married nor betrothed and who is coerced into sex and has to marry the perpetrator. (Deuteronomy 22: 28-29)

When considering passages like these in our progressive tradition, with its emphasis on individuality and autonomy, it is hard not to notice that the text was written with a particular reader in mind. It addresses free adult men only. The women are not asked for their perspective. It does not even seem a possibility that they have one at all. What is more, in some of the commentaries, the reason for treating the beautiful woman this way is more about the man’s well-being than it is about her’s. The problem is that it is detrimental to him if he just follows his impulse. Her suffering does not really come into it.

A comparable kind of argument can be found in the writings of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, when he considers the treatment of animals. We should refrain from cruelty towards animals, according to Kant, not because of the animals themselves, but because of our own humanity. Our behaviour towards animals can affect how we treat our fellow human beings. If we are kind to animals, we may be kind to our fellow human beings and do our duty to them. If we are cruel to animals, we may become cruel people. Thus, Kant can avoid the question whether animals have rights, or souls, while urging us to treat animals well. At the same time, we cannot help noticing that again perspectives are lacking.

Autonomy and individuality also come to the fore when considering the reason for treating those, who have fallen on hard times with dignity. ‘Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.’ (Deuteronomy 24: 22)  Unlike the previous example, we are asked to put ourselves in the position of the other. We remember what it was like not to have anyone to stand up for our rights or to help us out. Thus, we are also made aware that our fortune, too, can change. We were once slaves, but God redeemed us. Here, Torah can be read as a warning against believing that we are always in charge of our destiny or the creators of our good fortune.

We got the big calls right, but the devil is in the detail. Our tradition has a predilection for subverting what is big and what is small. We are told in Talmud that ‘Whoever saves a single life is considered by scripture to have saved the whole world.’ (Sanhedrin 37a) Getting the big things right is all about getting the small things right. We are not tasked with saving the universe, but with saving one person. We are not commanded to solve all poverty in the world, but if someone is in debt to us, we are to treat them well: not to go into their house, but wait for them to come out and bring you the pledge and not to keep the blanket in which they sleep at night. (Deuteronomy 24: 10-13)

This weekend is ONE shabbat, the weekend which celebrates the smaller communities throughout the land. Our tradition would be in a dire state if the above describes the complex relationship between big and small communities. Yet even if there is not the relation of creditor and debtor, there can be a harmful discrepancy in power and often a sense of not being heard. A progressive Torah reading reminds us not just to put ourselves in each other’s position, but to ask and enquire and hear the other speak. Even more, this weekend offers the occasion to subvert hierarchy and power structures. This is the weekend to learn with and from small communities and to acknowledge, with the Talmud in mind, the enormity of saving a small community and of keeping it going.

Dr Hannah Altorf LBC rabbinic student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.