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Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

Mishpatim

PARSHAT MISHPATIM
(5777)
A HUSBAND’S DUTY
“If he marries another, he shall not diminish her food, clothing, and sexual rights.” (Exodus 21:10)
On Sunday I will be teaching at Limmud, the big festival of Jewish learning held in Miami. Limmud began in England and now takes place in cities around the world. I gave two talks last year on two very different topics. This year my topic is Does God Belong in the Bedroom, the title of a book I published many years ago.
Of course, I believe that God belongs in the bedroom. The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Kahana who hid under the bed of his rabbi. He believed that what happens between a husband and a wife in the bedroom was Torah and he came to learn. When he determined that his rabbi was acting with too much levity, he came out from under the bed and said, “You would think my master never sipped the cup before.” His rabbi said, “Is that you? Come out Kahana, it is not proper” (Hagigah 5b). I do not recommend hiding under the bed of your rabbi to learn Torah. But this story certainly points to the idea that what happens in the privacy of the bedroom has religious significance.
Let me share an example that comes out of this week’s Torah reading. In mentioning various laws, the Torah speaks of the obligation of a husband towards his wife. Even if he takes another wife (polygamy was permitted at that time), he is forbidden to diminish his first wife’s food, clothing, and conjugal rights. The Torah was concerned with conjugal rights. Today we often think about marital obligations as a woman’s duty and a man’s right, but in Jewish tradition it is the other way around. Conjugal rights are a man’s duty and a woman’s right. In fact, Jewish law obligates a man to make sure that his wife has pleasure in the marital bedroom.
The Talmud expounds on this law of conjugal rights in greater detail. How often does a man have an obligation? According to the Mishnah, for a man of leisure every night, for a working man twice a week, for a donkey driver once a week, for a camel driver once a month, and for a sailor once every six months. Jewish law further expounds on this. If a man wishes to change jobs so that he is less available for his obligations, his wife has veto power. Today in our more egalitarian age, I would say that if one partner wants to take a job that causes him or her to be away from home more often, the other partner can say no.
I do discuss these issues with brides and grooms in my pre-marital counseling. Although most couples live together before they are married and think they have all the answers, I want them to look at sexuality from a Jewish point of view. I discuss this within a greater context of what I believe men and women need in a marriage. (There are differences, but now is not the time to elaborate.) The most important idea I try to put across to a bride and groom is that marriage involves a quest for holiness. Being holy is more than being ethical, it means rising above the animal within us, the part of us that is seeking our own pleasure. Holiness begins when we move beyond our own needs to see the needs of the other.
In my talk at Limmud Sunday I will speak about a ladder of holiness when it comes to sexual behavior, and many other areas of life. How do we move beyond the animal within us to a higher level that sees the godliness within us? I have lectured on this subject around the country. I often like to end my lectures with a story I first heard from the late Rabbi Robert Gordis. He spoke of a Hasidic Rebbe who asked his students, there are two men on a ladder. One is on the third step and one is on the tenth step. Which one is higher? The students answered, the one on the tenth step. The Rebbe replied, wrong. It depends on whether they are going up or down.
There is a ladder of holiness. We each need to ask ourselves in our sexual and every other area of life, are we going up the ladder or are we going down.

PARSHAT MISHPATIM
(5776)
SIN AND REPENT, SIN AND REPENT
“When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment.” (Exodus 21:2)
After the lofty moments of the giving of the Ten Commandments last week, this week we begin to read about the nitty-gritty details. How are we to behave as a people living under a covenant with God? The very first law in this week’s portion speaks about releasing one’s Hebrew indentured servant in the seventh year. The haftarah (reading from the Prophets) repeats the same law. But from the haftarah we gain an insight about human nature.
The Talmud teaches regarding the laws of Yom Kippur, “If someone says I will sin and then repent, sin again and then repent again, he will not have the opportunity to repent.” (Yoma 8:9). This law reflects a fundamental human weakness. We do something wrong, resolve not to do it again, then do it again and resolve again, over and over. It is like the person who says, “It is easy to give up smoking. I have done it dozens of times.”
How often do we do the wrong thing, change our ways and then go back to doing it again. This idea is already reflected in this week’s haftarah. Before describing Jeremiah’s words, we need to turn to the Torah reading. The Torah wants to discourage slavery and indentured servitude. (Both are forbidden by contemporary law but were common in Biblical times.) This week’s portion teaches that an indentured servant must be given his freedom in the seventh year. The book of Deuteronomy will add to that law, saying that in the seventh year he must be given the means to get back on his feet. In a perfect world there would be no indentured servants and no slaves.
That brings us to the prophet Jeremiah, shortly before the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. Jeremiah loves his fellow Israelites and hopes to save them from the wrath of the Babylonian army. Jeremiah hopes that if the Israelites will set their servants free, God will prevent Babylonia from destroying them. So the haftarah begins with the words, “The word which came to Jeremiah from the Lord after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to proclaim a release among them – that everyone should set free his Hebrew slaves, both male and female, and that no one should keep his fellow Judean enslaved.” (Jeremiah 34:8 – 9) Everyone listens to Jeremiah’s words and does what God had ordained.
Unfortunately, the good deed did not last. The Bible proclaims, “But afterward they turned about and brought back the men and women they had set free, and forced them into slavery again.” (Jeremiah 34:11) Jeremiah proclaims that by making people slaves once again, the people have disobeyed the covenant. God will bring a vicious punishment on the people. Their land will be handed to their enemies, and Judah will be made a desolation. Sadly, historically that is exactly what happened.
One can easily identity with the people of Judah who sought to do the right thing but in the end did the wrong thing. It is human nature. The Rabbis later taught that the evil inclination (yetzer hara) in the beginning is like a spider web but in the end is like a heavy rope. (Genesis Rabbah 22:6) The more we do the wrong thing, the harder it is to change our ways and do the right thing. People who are used to having slaves will not easily give up their slaves. Look at the Egyptians who sent the Israelites free, then changed their mind and chased them to the Sea. And look at the American south, who went to war to hold onto their slaves. Change, whether it be holding slaves, smoking, or improper behavior, is always difficult.
Nonetheless, one of the great teachings of our tradition is that change may be difficult but it can be done. People can change and not relapse. I have seen drug addicts who have remained clean for years, heavy drinkers who have passed multiple milestones of sobriety. Change is never easy, and yet some people have turned their lives around in dramatic ways. We can look forward to the day when not just slavery and indentured servitude, but all improper behavior, can be changed.

PARSHAT MISHPATIM
(5775)
VACCINATIONS
“When men quarrel and one strikes the other with stone or fist and he does not die but has to take to his bed, if he then gets up and walks outdoors upon his staff, the assailant shall go unpunished, except that he must pay for his idleness and his cure.” (Exodus 21:18-19)
There was a story recently on National Public Radio about a woman who worked in the health care field and was required to receive a flu shot. She refused on philosophical grounds. She claimed that she was a vegan and the flu vaccine is made in eggs, an animal product that she would not put in her body. He boss claimed that her refusal to get a flu shot was a threat to the patients with whom she worked. The case went to court. Eventually the woman won; one can refuse vaccinations on religious or philosophical grounds.
This case points to a controversy that is raging today. Not long ago there was a belief that measles had been eliminated in the United States. Now there has been an outbreak, started at the happiest place on earth – Disneyland. More and more parents have refused to have their children vaccinated, and they have become the victims of this new outbreak. In my own state of Florida, one can refuse vaccinations on religious grounds. But that raises a profound question about the attitude of religion towards vaccinations.
One can understand how certain religions would forbid vaccinations. The Amish for example have forbidden their communities from enjoying most of the wonders of modern technology. Christian Scientists reject modern medicine in favor of seeking God’s intervention in medical issues. At one point Jehovah’s Witnesses forbid vaccinations, worried that the vaccines contained blood. More recently that opposition has mellowed, leaving it up to the believer’s individual conscience. But what I find fascinating is the number of mainstream Jews and Christians who have opted out of vaccinating their children on religious grounds.
What is the religious thinking behind this opposition? Under the influence of New Age thinking, there is a move back to nature today. This is often tied in to those in the deep ecology movement, a movement that views nature as a person having rights. People with this point of view prefer a vegetarian or even vegan diet. They will choose natural childbirth, often with a midwife rather than a doctor. They will make every attempt to live lightly on the earth, trying to be at one with nature. Many people in this movement are the most vocal critics of circumcision. And many people who take this approach oppose vaccinations.
How does Judaism view this return to nature movement? This week’s Torah reading contains a hint. It contains the damages one must pay if one should injure another human being. This includes the cost of healing. Later the Rabbis would develop five tort obligations following an injury – actual damage, pain, healing, lost wages, and embarrassment. Healing is at the center of this. Humans have been given an obligation to heal. Of course, healing involves going against nature, or perhaps better, helping nature along. Disease is natural, and injuries are part of living in the natural world. Overcoming disease or healing injuries, whether by surgery or drugs or both, is part of a human obligation. That is why some of the greatest rabbis in history – Maimonides comes to mind – were first doctors. And that is why every Jewish parent wants their child to be a doctor.
I believe there is a fundamental danger in the “back to nature” movement. Yes nature is God’s creation. But nature is amoral, neither good nor bad. Sometimes nature can be wonderful, one thinks of how a broken arm will heal itself. And sometimes nature can be terrible, with diseases such as measles or worse still, polio or small pox. There is a human obligation to overcome nature by curing disease, using vaccines if necessary.
Before I wrote this, I spoke to a prominent pediatrician who is sympathetic to the back-to-nature movement. How did she feel about vaccinations? She expressed very strong feelings about the dangers of refusing vaccines. She believes in vaccinating all children – for religious reasons.
PARSHAT MISHPATIM
(5774)
DEADLY FORCE
“If a thief is seized while tunneling [into a home] and is beaten to death, there is no bloodguilt in his case. But if the sun has risen on him there is bloodguilt in that case.” (Exodus 22:1 – 2)
In a movie theater near Tampa, FL, a man was killed for texting on his cell phone. The perpetrator, a retired police officer, claims that he felt threatened when he told the man to stop texting. This occurred in a state with a controversial stand-your-ground law, allowing the use of deadly force whenever someone feels threatened. This became the central question of the recent court case where George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing Trayvon Martin. Without going into the particular merits of that tragic case, let us look at the fundamental question. When is it permissible to use deadly force against another human being?
This week’s portion contains a long list of civil and criminal laws given by Moses to the people Israel. One of those laws speaks about a thief caught breaking into a home. If the thief breaks in a night and the homeowner uses deadly force to kill the thief, the homeowner is considered not guilty. But if the thief breaks in during the day and the homeowner uses deadly force, the homeowner is considered guilty. Let us quote the words of the Torah – “But if the sun has risen on him there is bloodguilt in that case.” What difference does it make whether the crime took place at night or during the day?
There is an underlying assumption of the Torah law. By night, the thief assumes that people are home. The fact that he is breaking in while people are home shows that he is prepared to harm those who live in the home. Therefore, the homeowner can do what is necessary to protect himself and his family. To quote the Talmud based on this passage, “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill them first.” (Sanhedrin 72a) [Our late education director Mordecai Kaspi-Silverman, used to wear those words on a chain around his neck.]
By day on the other hand, there is a presumption that nobody is home. The thief is breaking in to steal property without the intent to harm anybody who lives there. One cannot use deadly force to protect one’s property if there is no threat to his life. So by day the homeowner would be found guilty. The Rabbis of the Talmud give this law a different meaning. What does it mean to say that “the sun has risen on him.” This passage is not to be taken literally. Rather, if it is as clear as the sun by day that the thief means no harm, then it is forbidden to use deadly force against the thief. (Sanhedrin 72a) Only in a case where there is a true threat of bodily harm can deadly force be used.
These are the outlines of the law. The use of deadly force in one’s own home is limited to a case where there is a threat of bodily harm. If one knows clearly that the thief is coming after property and has no intention of causing harm, it is forbidden to use such deadly force. If this is true in one’s own home, how much more is it true in a movie theatre, in a gated community, or any other public place? Deadly force is limited to those few cases where there is a true threat of bodily harm and no other means of escaping such harm. If one can escape, if one can call police or other authorities, then the use of such force would be forbidden.
As I share these thoughts, I want to be careful. It is one thing to speak of such matters from the comfort of my office, and quite another to speak of them in the heat of the moment. It is not always clear whether someone is a true threat. That is why it is vital for those who chose to carry weapons think carefully and train themselves on how to react in a scary situation. The use of deadly force is sometimes necessary, but only as a last resort when there are no other alternatives.

PARSHAT MISHPATIM
(5773)
MOSES AND DARWIN
“When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment.” (Exodus 21:2)
This is Evolution Weekend. Synagogues and churches throughout the country are using this weekend to speak about science and religion. Can a religious Jew or Christian accept the theory of evolution through natural selection, the accepted theory of how life developed and flourished on earth? Can one believe in both Moses and Darwin?
When I agreed to participate in this theme on this weekend, I had not checked the weekly portion. I have often taught that any subject can be fit with any portion of the Torah. But what is the link between evolution and a portion of the Torah that is basically a list of civil and criminal laws? What do the laws of ancient Israelite society have to do with how life flourished on this earth? Then I began to read the portion. Suddenly a deep truth jumped out at me; there is evolution in law just as there is evolution in life.
The very first law of the portion speaks of a Hebrew slave – actually more of an indentured servant than a slave. For six years he would work and in the seventh year he would go free. If he was given a wife or had children, they would not go free. But the servant earned his freedom through his work. If he refused to go free, an earring was bored into his earlobe and he would work until the next Jubilee year. Canaanite slaves could not go free, but Hebrew slaves were given their freedom.
In our mind the law sounds barbaric. How could the Torah allow slavery at all? But it is a step forward from the practice of slavery forever. Later these laws would evolve in the book of Deuteronomy. Not only was the Hebrew slave set free, he must be furnished with flocks and foods so he could sustain himself. (Deuteronomy 15:12 – 14) A fugitive slave cannot be returned to his owner. (Deuteronomy 23:16) And in the second mention of the Ten Commandments, a male or female servant cannot be forced to work on the Sabbath. (Deuteronomy 5:14)
What is clear from this is that between Exodus and Deuteronomy the law has evolved. There is greater concern in Deuteronomy than in Exodus with the dignity and humanity of a slave. In our Western culture it would take more than two millennia to evolve further and finally outlaw slavery altogether. Sadly slavery is still a reality today in parts of the world. The Torah was not given in its complete form, but continues to evolve towards a vision of greater and greater human dignity. Human dignity is ultimate goal of the Torah; we still have not totally reached that goal. But at least we are moving in the right direction.
What is true for revelation is also true for creation. The world was not created in one fell swoop as fundamentalists might understand the Bible. It has evolved from simpler forms to more complex forms. Life has become more complex over eons of time, eventually leading to creatures with the ability to speak, to reason, to make moral judgments, and to become partners in the ongoing evolution of the world. Darwin gave us the method by which life evolved. Slight variations in species caused those most fit for survival to reproduce and pass on their adaptations to a new generation. Later, scientists would combine Darwin’s theory of natural selection with Mendel’s theory of genetics. Variations in species took place because of genetic mutations (plus other factors.) Most mutations were destructive so that the organism would not survive. But some mutations were advantageous and lead to flourishing and eventually, to new species.
Darwin gave us the method by which evolution took place. But it is Moses, and religion in general, who gave the direction of that evolution. Evolution is not simply a series of random events going nowhere. It has a direction and a goal – to use the fancy philosophical term, it has a teleology. Darwin could tell us how it works but Moses tells us its purpose. That is why, as a religious Jew, I believe that both Darwin and Moses were right.

PARSHAT MISHPATIM
(5771)

MARITAL RIGHTS
“If he takes for himself another wife; her food, her garment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish.” (Exodus 21:10)
(Warning – I am going to be somewhat explicit about sexual relations in this message. I will also be discussing this Sunday night in my Real Issues, Jewish Answers series. For those uncomfortable with such discussions, skip this message.)
It has been almost twenty years since my book Does God Belong in the Bedroom was published. Parts of the book seem quaint as I realize how my own thinking has evolved since then. But parts seem as true as ever. I still believe that God belongs in the bedroom, and that our sexual behavior becomes a way of serving God. I still believe that there is a ladder of holiness each of us must climb in many areas of our lives, including our sexuality. And I still believe that casual, recreational sex, like casual recreational drug use, is a problem in our society.
This view of sexuality reaches all the way back to the Bible. The beginning of this week’s portion speaks about the duties of a husband towards his wife. Three such duties are mentioned explicitly, although later the rabbis of the Talmud would expand this number. A husband may not diminish his wife’s food, clothing, and sexual rights. Contrary to popular opinion, in the Bible sexuality becomes a man’s duty and a woman’s right. The Talmud even goes into some detail as to the frequency of such an obligation. (Here is a note to all the retirees out there – for men of leisure, every day.)
I believe there is a serious message behind this. Why is sexuality a husband’s duty and a wife’s right? To answer that question, we have to wander onto the dangerous shoals of gender. And whenever we speak of gender, we can only speak in generalities. In general, it is much easier to satisfy a man than to satisfy a woman. Men are stimulated visually. Women need to be touched, loved, and given attention to find satisfaction. Women find satisfaction within the context of being loved by her partner.
This is one of the keys to holiness. I have often defined holiness as the attempt to rise above the animal within us. It is noteworthy that animals as a general rule mate face to back. There is no necessity and no desire to see the face of one mating partner. Humans on the other hand generally make love face to face. (I deliberately used the phrase “mate” for animals and “make love” for humans.) Part of the sexual act is to see and meet the needs of the other. Truly seeing the other means learning to let go of one’s own self. In a way, the kabalistic idea of tzimtzum – God contracting God’s self to make room for a universe, is a powerful metaphor. We must contract our own ego and our own needs to meet the needs of the other.
That brings me to contemporary life. We live in a world where casual recreational sex is the norm. Why else could a comedy about The Forty Year Old Virgin become a huge hit. Casual sex is a regular theme of our movies, from Love and Other Drugs to the current No Strings Attached. The idea that sexuality is about meeting the needs of the other rather than fulfilling the needs of one’s self seems strangely quaint. Our young people hear the mantra – “if it feels good, do it.” And in the process, we have lost our sense of holiness. We have returned to the animal within us.
In my book I spoke about climbing a ladder of holiness. I often like to quote a story I first heard from the late Rabbi Robert Gordis. A rebbe asks his students, two people are on a ladder, one on the second rung and one on the tenth rung. Who is higher? Of course the students answer, “The one on the tenth rung.” The rebbe replies, “Wrong. Who is higher? It depends on whether they are climbing up or climbing down.” We are all on a ladder of holiness. Are we climbing up or are we climbing down?

PARSHAT MISHPATIM
(5770)

THE EVOLUTION OF ETHICS

“When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment.” (Exodus 21:2)

After reading last week the broad commitments of the Ten Commandments, the Torah turns this week to the nitty-gritty details. How does Israel establish a just society? How does it deal with laws ranging from robbery to damages, from marital relations to festivals? The first law in this portion regards a Hebrew slave (or more likely, an indentured servant.) Six years he works and on the seventh year he goes free.
It is certainly a giant step forward from previous practices, where a Hebrew slave worked forever. But why only a Hebrew slave; why not let a non-Hebrew slave free after six years? And for that matter, why does the Torah allow slavery at all? Why not simply outlaw any human being forced to work for another against their will, without a reasonable wage?
Perhaps the Torah should have forbidden slavery. For that matter, perhaps the Torah should have outlawed capital punishment, war, animal sacrifice, and the second-class status of women. If the Torah is a document of eternal laws, perhaps it should have communicated an ethical ideal from the very beginning.
The deep teaching is that ethical laws are not given in their complete form once and for all. Ethical laws evolve as human beings evolve. Among the Greeks, Aristotle spoke of justice. But for Aristotle this meant giving everybody their due according to their status in life. The wealthy and powerful were given more than the working poor, who received more than slaves or women. Justice was part of the ancient Greek outlook, but it was a limited vision of justice. As history developed, the circle of ethical concern expanded accordingly. Ethics evolved.
It is embarrassing that when the United States Constitution was enacted, slaves were counted as three-fifths of human beings. But at time it was a step forward. Giving equal moral status to people of color took a civil war and over two hundred years of history. And we are not there yet. Less than one hundred years ago women were finally granted the right to vote in the United States. In religious circles we are still debating the propriety of full female participation in religious life.
Today the circle of ethical concern continues to expand. Only in the past few years is there serious discussion about the rights and participations of gays and lesbians in our civil and religious life. The debate remains intense about the rights and privileges of immigrants in this country. There is a deep Jewish concern for the humanity of the “other,” but this has been a slow evolution. For the ancient Israelites, freeing a Hebrew slave in the seventh year was a huge ethical step forward. In our time, allowing a gay man or lesbian woman into the military, or ordaining them as a rabbi, is a huge ethical step forward. It was as unthinkable thirty years ago as a bat mitzvah was unthinkable in my grandfather’s time. Ethics evolve.
Synagogues and churches throughout America have designated this weekend as Evolution Shabbat, to deal with issues of religion and Darwin’s theory. I have spoken directly on the Darwin’s theory in recent weeks. But I believe the theory is not only true when talking about life on earth. I believe evolution is true in the realm of ideas. Richard Dawkins, the renowned biologist and atheist (with whom I often disagree), coined the term “memes.” Memes are to the world of ideas what genes are to the world of biology. Some memes, like some genes, quickly disappear. Other memes flourish and spread throughout humanity. Ethical caring for the other is a meme which is spreading. There is an expanding circle of ethical care. Ethics, like life itself, is in the midst of an ongoing process of evolution.

PARSHAT MISHPATIM
(5769)

PUBLIC PROPERTY

“When a man opens a pit, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or an ass falls into it, the one responsible for the pit must make restitution; he shall pay the price to the owner, but shall keep the dead animal.” (Exodus 21:33-34)

Last week we read the glorious giving of the Ten Commandments. This week we read the nitty-gritty detail of civil life. Numerous laws cover everything from slavery to robbery, and from charity to ritual laws. Among the most important laws are those regarding torts, various categories of damages. What happens if an ox gores another ox (or if a car hits another car)? What if it was a warned ox (or a driver with a history of violations)? What if a person digs a pit in a public place and someone is injured? What if that person digs the pit in her own backyard?
The Talmud goes into rather extreme detail about the various categories of damages. This happens to be the section of Talmud that those who follow the daf yomi (daily Talmud study schedule) are studying right now. The Talmud differentiates between those who create a hazard in a public place and on their own private property. But in the middle of these detailed legal discussions, there is a fascinating passage relevant to anyone who cares about public property and the environment:
“Our Rabbis taught: A man should not remove stones from his ground on to public ground. A certain man was removing stones from his ground on to public ground when a pious man found him doing so and said to him, `Fool, why do you remove stones from ground which is not yours to ground which is yours?’ The man laughed at him. Some days later he had to sell his field, and when he was walking on that public ground he stumbled over those stones. He then said, `How well did that pious man say to me, why do you remove stones from ground which is not yours to ground which is yours?’” (Baba Kamma 50b).
The pious man in this passage shared some deep wisdom. Our private property is in a sense not really ours; we are only temporary owners. But the public property belongs to all of us. To place a hazard on public property is to damage our very selves. The modern parallel would be the factory that pollutes the public air and water, and then the owner of the factory has to go home, breathe that very air and drink that very water. To destroy the environment of public properties is to destroy ourselves.
This was driven home to me by a very unique tour of Jerusalem last week. The tour dealt with environmental issues in the holy city. We visited a bird sanctuary and a forest in the midst of urban Jerusalem. But then came the most interesting part of the tour. A government official showed us where plans had been drawn up to build new housing all over the gorgeous hills to the west of the city. It was known as the Safdie Development Plan. The reasoning behind the plan was to find more housing for Jewish families in the city in order to maintain the population balance between Jews and Arabs. The plan had a political purpose but was environmentally irresponsible. It was finally scrapped largely by the effort of various Israeli environmental organizations.
The tour ended with a meeting with Naomi Tzur, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem and a former environmental activist. She showed us how it was possible to solve Jerusalem’s population problems through building in current urban areas, without destroying the beautiful hillsides outside the city. Solving any population problem in Jerusalem is not easy; one must balance the needs of three populations often in conflict with each other: Arabs, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and modern Israeli Jews. But all three groups must share air and water, hillsides and forests. Destroying public property ultimately destroys are private selves.
The environment is a major international issue encompassing questions such as greenhouse gasses and the destruction of the rainforest. This short section of Talmud dealing with damages perhaps can give us an insight on the importance of caring for our environment. The public place belongs to all of us.

PARSHAT MISHPATIM
(5768)

LOVE YOUR ENEMY?
“When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him.” (Exodus 23:4)
There is a question I love to ask young people in my study sessions. Suppose you found the lost object of your enemy. For example, suppose you found the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s wallet with some cash in a parking lot. Would you return it? Would you take out the cash and then return it? Or would you keep it? The answer can be found in this week’s Torah reading.
The Torah teaches that we must return our enemy’s lost object. So many secular thinkers are convinced that the Torah is merely a human document which reflects a bunch of ancient laws and ideas. And yet, now and again, one law jumps out and teaches us that the Torah is something more; it is touched with the divine. The Torah came into an ancient primitive society and gave them insights that we still need to learn today. One of the most important insight; even our enemies are created in the image of God.
Part of how we fight our wars today is by dehumanizing our enemies. We make up names which detract from their humanity – “krauts, japs, gooks, blanketheads.” The Nazis did not come to power and immediately start killing Jews. Rather they passed a series of laws which slowly stripped Jews of their rights and their humanity. Eventually people began to see the Jews not as human beings but as mere vermin. It is small wonder that Nazi officers could murder Jews by day and go home to hug their families, read their poetry, listen to Brahms and Beethoven by night. The Jews in the eyes of the Germans were no longer human.
It is so easy to fight your enemy by taking away their humanity. They cease to be human, lose that dignity of being created in the image of God, and thus we can fight them without feeling any remorse. But the truth is, even our enemies are created in the image of God. We must fight Mr. Ahmadinejad’s cruel plans to build nuclear weapons to destroy Israel, while never forgetting that he also was created in the image of God. Central to the Torah is the recognition of the humanity of our enemies.
Recognizing the humanity of our enemies does not mean we have to love our enemy. The Torah does not command us to do what is emotionally impossible. I have no interest in loving Hitler. Nor does the Torah command us to “turn the other cheek.” This New Testament saying was part of a world view that saw the immediate coming of the Messianic age. For those of us who believe we live in a real world with real enemies, we must do what we must do to defend ourselves. “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first,” the Talmud teaches. But never forget that even the person who is coming to kill you is a child of God, created in the image of the Almighty.
By recognizing the humanity of our enemy, we are recognizing that people can change. The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Meir who prayed for the death of a cruel man who made his life miserable. Meir’s wife Beruriah heard his prayer and reprimanded him. “Do not pray that he die. Pray that he change his ways. The Bible does not say that sinners should be removed from the earth, but that sin be removed from the earth.” Enemies can change. In the Avot of Rabbi Natan, it teaches “who is strong? Whoever can turn an enemy into a friend.”
One of the greatest teachings in Judaism, which rabbis love to repeat, is the passage from the Talmud about the crossing of the Red Sea. After the waters swept over the Egyptians, the Israelites sang the song of the sea. The angels in heaven started to sing along, but God stopped them. “My children are drowning in the sea. How can you sing?” Even the evil Egyptians were God’s children.
Few of us go through life without making enemies. I once saw a sign on someone’s desk, “Friends may come and friends may go, but enemies accumulate.” Certainly we must do whatever is necessary to protect ourselves from those who would harm us. But we must never forget, even those enemies were created in the image of God. That is why we must return our enemy’s lost object.

PARSHAT MISHPATIM
(5767)

VALENTINE’S DAY

“If the slave declares, I love my master, and my wife and children, I do not wish to go free, his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall remain his slave for life.” (Exodus 21:5-6)

Should a Jew celebrate a secular festival named after a Christian saint? In general, my wife and I have not celebrated Valentine’s Day, seeking other times to proclaim our love for one another. But the February 14 celebration of love is so overwhelming, thanks partially to the media, the greeting card industry, flower and chocolate merchants, and restaurants, that it is hard to avoid the day. No wonder people without love in their lives often go into a deep depression this time of year. Some people seek love, not out of a real commitment but so they will not be alone on Valentine’s Day.
Perhaps it is worthy to think about what love really means. I am convinced that part of the high divorce rate in contemporary life is we do not really understand the meaning of love. We believe love is about romance, candy, flowers, walks on the beach, a deep sexual attraction, and infatuation with another human being. We believe love is a kind of magic. This is the message of the movies, television, novels, and popular music. We believe that some enchanted evening we will see a stranger across a crowded room, and that is love. This whole misunderstanding sees love as something that focuses on ourselves, our needs. We want to be in love because love makes us feel good.
There is an old Yiddish saying, “He and she were in love, he with himself, she with herself.” This is the problem with love as we understand it in our contemporary life. Love becomes a way of meeting our needs. Focusing on ourselves is the exact opposite of love. Love is not about our needs but the needs of the other. When we love someone, we need to see them, put ourselves aside, and focus on them. Such love is often lacking in our “what’s-in-it-for-me” age.
To love another, we must first know another. The Bible speaks of the first sexual relationship in history, the encounter between Adam and Eve. “Adam knew his wife Eve.” (Genesis 4:1) Why the verb “know?” It is a hint of the human ideal. Love is about knowing the other, seeing who they are and what their needs are. How do you love someone the first time you see him or her across a crowded room? Can you truly see such a person?
Love also means to put one’s self aside to focus on the other. I love the image from kabbala. God in order to create the world, practiced tzimtzum, self- contraction. Only if we contract ourselves do we make room for the other. That is why the Rabbis of the Talmud taught that true love is non-conditional; we do for the other with no expectations for ourselves. Only love where our own needs are set aside is love that can last.
There is an example in our Torah reading. The Torah was given at a time when slavery and servitude were the norm. (Thank God we are past that time, at least in most of the world.) A servant was set free after seven years. But if the servant loved his master, or if he had a wife during his servitude and wanted to stay with her, he could do so. His ear was pierced at the door by an awl. (Whenever I see a man with a pierced ear, I am reminded of the slave who does not want to go free.) He would continue his servitude forever. (According to later Rabbinic interpretation, until the Jubilee year.)
As archaic as this ancient law sounds, there is something very modern. Love means giving up freedom. When a person loves another person, that person must put aside his or her own needs to be present for the other. True love involves sacrifice. We have lost that sense of giving up the self to serve the other.
On Valentine’s Day, if you want to celebrate it, do more than buy a box of candy or a card. Look at the one you profess to love. Then ask yourself, “What does this person need, and how can I put aside my needs to meet their needs?” By the way, there were actually three different men known as St. Valentine; each became a martyr serving the people they loved. Putting one’s self aside for the needs of another is a love worth celebrating.

PARSHAT MISHPATIM
(5766)

OTHER PEOPLE’S MONEY

“If a man delivers to his neighbor an ass, or an ox, or a sheep, or any beast, to keep; and it dies, or is hurt, or driven away, no man seeing it; then shall an oath of the Lord be between them both, that he has not put his hand to his neighbor’s goods; and its owner shall accept this, and he shall not make it good.” (Exodus 22:9-10)

A few years ago I was visiting my brother’s vacation home up in the mountains of the Poconos. I was driving a rental car which we left parked in my brother’s driveway. That night a huge storm ripped through the mountain community. A tree fell over and smashed the car. So began an adventure with insurance and rental companies. (I have since learned to always buy the comprehensive insurance rental companies offer.)
Nobody would pay for the damages. My insurance company said it was not covered because it happened out of state. The rental company said that if my insurance would not pay, I was personally responsible. I certainly would not ask my brother. It took a lawyer and a year of negotiations to settle the case.
The case raises some fascinating questions. If my property is damaged while on someone else’s premises, who is responsible? The Torah and eventually the Talmud, in days before insurance had to deal with this. The Talmud teaches that there are four possibilities, what they call arba shomrim, four bailments. Suppose my car is damaged while parked on someone else’s property. Was my car on the property because the owner was allowing me to use the space for free? Or was it on the property because the owner was leasing me the space? Was the owner leasing my car, therefore gaining benefit from its use? Or was the owner borrowing my car, without payment to me? The law will vary in each one of these four cases.
Obviously the Torah does not speak of cars. It does talk about animals. What are my obligations in caring for someone else’s animals? (The issue comes up in the hit movie Brokeback Mountain, currently playing. Some sheep were destroyed while the herders hired to watch them were doing something else; I will not discuss what they were doing here. I recommend the movie.) The details are not as important as the principle that I am responsible for my neighbor’s property. The degree of responsibility depends on the situation. But if I borrow my neighbor’s car and have an accident, I need to pay, even if it is not my fault. (That is what the rental car company was trying to tell me.)
This is one example of how this week’s portion expands on the principles in the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments says “Thou shall not steal.” The portion goes into detail; what are the obligations towards another person’s property? The Torah does recognize property rights. And it recognizes that building a just civil society requires that we respect the property of others.
We live in a more complicated age today. Property is more than money and goods. There is intellectual property. Do I have the right to copy someone else’s material for my personal use without purchasing it? Do I have the right to copy software without paying the proper licensing fees? Do I have the right to download music or movies without permission? (Most of our teens believe they have the right to do all of these things.) As a rabbi, do I have the right to use someone else’s material in a sermon or lecture without proper attribution and permission? I am a member of the National Speakers Association. On a regular basis, we receive warnings that it is an ethical violation to use another speaker’s material without permission.
Our property also includes our mental understanding. For example, it is forbidden to walk into a store and deliberately lead the storekeeper on if we have no intention of buying? It is considered stealing, literally stealing someone’s mind. We are forbidden to deliberate lead someone astray.
Stealing is obviously forbidden. What is more difficult is setting up a just society where people respect each other’s property. That is the goal of this week’s portion. And that is the goal of any just society.

PARSHAT MISHPATIM
(5764)

THE WORLD OF REFLECTION

“When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox is not to be punished.” (Exodus 21:28)

This week the Bible introduces numerous civil laws, including the law of torts (damages). The classic example of a tort is the ox that gores. What is the owner’s liability? There are actually two categories of ox. One is called the shor tam (innocent ox), a gentle ox with no history of goring. The other is the shor muad (warned ox), an animal with a history of violent behavior. The damages the owner must pay are far more severe in the latter case.
The Talmud develops this idea further. Certain animals are always warned that they have the potential to cause damage. If one owns a lion, a bear, a poisonous snake, one cannot claim that their animal was always gentle in the past and therefore their liability is limited. Today we would say that if someone owns a pit bull, they better keep that dog under control, or else be prepared to pay full damages for any injury their animal causes. Certain animals are innocent and certain animals are warned.
Now comes a fascinating and insightful law on what it means to be a human being. The Talmud goes on to say adam muad l’olam (humans are always warned) (Sanhedrin 72a). A human being, from the moment he or she hits adulthood, is fully responsible for all actions. This is one of the key ways we humans stand above the animal world. We assume full liability for any damage we may cause from everything we do. Being a human means living in a world of other humans. It means reflecting on how our actions affect the people with whom we come into contact, or even the people influenced by our behavior. To be human is to live in a world of reflection.
Two weeks ago I spoke about the World of Action, the lowest of four worlds in the kabbalistic outlook. Last week I spoke about feelings, the World of Passion is the second of the four worlds. I often call the third world the World of Reflection, the world where we put our appetites aside and see how our actions affect other human beings. This is the world where we become fully human. To be a human is to see other humans, and know how everything we do affects other people. To be human is to move beyond ourselves and our own selfish needs. We become human when we truly see others.
Rabbi Harold Kushner tells a beautiful story about a little boy who was very late coming home from school. When he finally arrived, his parents began yelling at him. “Where were you? We were very worried.” The boy explained, “My friend received a brand new bicycle and he was so excited. Then on the way home he hit a tree and the bicycle broke. I stayed with him to help him.” The parents, still angry, replied, “How could you help him? You don’t know anything about fixing bicycles.” So the boy said, “I didn’t stay with him to help him fix the bicycle. I stayed with him to help him cry.” This is the meaning of being human, when we stay with one another to help each other cry.
The Talmud teaches that “Humans are always warned.” We can never say that we did not know how our actions would affect others. As humans, we live in a web of relationships – with family, with neighbors, with business acquaintances, and with total strangers. Everything we do affects those relationships. We need to look beyond ourselves and see what our fellow humans need. This means truly seeing the other, being able to laugh with them and cry with them, to understand what they need.
I teach a group of high school students each week in my office. We were talking about love, so I asked them what it means “to fall in love.” They struggled with an answer. Then I told them, what many of us see as love is really self-love. We look for someone who meets our needs – our need for companionship, for status, sadly during the high school years, for sex. We want to fall in love to feel good about ourselves. We say we are in love, but we are focused on ourselves. This is not real love. True love is when we put ourselves aside and totally see another human being, and then act in a way that meets the needs of the other. Love begins with reflection. We cannot love the other until we truly see the other. And we cannot see the other until we stop seeing only ourselves.
It is the ability to live in a World of Reflection that causes us to rise above the animal within us. Until then, too often we are like that Biblical goring ox, hurting others without knowing what we are doing, and then claiming innocence. That is why the Talmud teaches, to be human is to know better. Let us raise ourselves up to live fully in the World of Reflection.

PARSHAT MISHPATIM
(5763)

ABORTION

“If men strive together and hurt a woman with child so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow, he shall be surely fined. According as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him and he shall pay as the judges determine.” (Exodus 21:22).

Dare I speak about abortion! Whatever I might say would engender controversy. And yet, as we passed the 30th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, it is important to speak on the issue.
I disagree with those in the pro-life camp who claim that abortion is murder. I also disagree with those in the pro-choice camp who claim that a woman can make any choice regarding her own body. Is it possible to stake out a middle ground?
Allow me to share some words from my book God, Love, Sex, and Family:
My belief, which grows from my reading of the Bible and Jewish tradition, is that abortion is not murder as the sixth commandment understands it. Abortion may be a serious moral act which ought to be discouraged or forbidden. But it is not murder.
My proof is the statement in the Torah that explicitly forbids a monetary fine for the perpetrator of murder. (See Numbers 35:31) The Bible always separates the realm of property from the realm of life and death. According to the Torah, if a man causes a woman to miscarry through his negligence, he must pay a fine. (See Exodus 21:22) If it were murder there would be no such fine. The damage from the loss of her potential child is real, and the woman and her husband must receive compensation. But it is not murder.
If abortion were murder, we would justified in treating women who seek abortions precisely as we treat murderers. Are pro-life sympa¬thizers ready to sentence physicians who perform abortions to life imprisonment, or even the death penalty? Obviously even the most strident anti-abortionists stop short of calling for such drastic measures.
To say that abortion is not murder does not mean that it is justified. There are many reasons why abortion may be deemed improper, immoral, or even possibly made illegal. One can argue that the developing fetus, even if not a full human being with the right of protection through the laws of homicide, still is an entity of sufficient worth to merit some kind of protection. Ronald Dworkin, professor of law and outspoken abortion rights advocate from the pro-choice camp, has written:

“Even though a fetus is not a constitutional person, it is nevertheless an entity of considerable moral and emo¬tional significance in our culture, and a state may recog¬nize and try to protect that significance in ways that fall short of any substantial abridgment of a woman’s constitu¬tional right over the use of her own body. A state might properly fear the impact of widespread abortion on its citizens’ instinc¬tive respect for the value of human life and their instinc¬tive horror at human destruction or suf¬fering, which are values essential for the maintenance of a just and decent civil society. A political community in which abortion became commonplace and a matter of ethical indifference, like appendectomy, would certainly be a more callous and insensi¬tive community, and it might be a more dangerous one as well.”
(Ronald Dworkin, “The Great Abortion Case,” New York Review of Books, 36, 11 (June 29,1989), p. 52).

Even if the fetus is not a full living being, it has a moral status which deserves some degree of protection, if for no other reason than to prevent further callousness towards life in our society. That is the reason that our Biblical traditions strongly frown on abortion.
However, one could possibly argue from the liberal point of view that the fetus a mere limb of the mother’s body. If so, can she not deal with it in accordance with her wishes? Can we say that the abortion of the fetus a non-event to which no moral or religious judgment can be made? This has been the contention of many in the pro-choice camp. Over and over, I hear the comment, “A woman has the right to do what she wants with her own body.”
The Torah recognizes no such right. Our bodies do not belong to us to do as we please. The Torah forbids us from tattooing our skin or making marks in our body. (Leviticus 19:28) The rabbis taught that a man cannot tell his fellow, “if you injure me you will not be liable.” (Baba Kamma 8:7) Our bodies are on loan from God, and God’s will for us must be the fundamental consideration for any decision about our body.
The fetus may not be a full life, but it is an entity of suffi¬cient moral value that it deserves protection. It is potential life. There are certain limited occasions when abortion is permitted or even required, because carrying a pregnancy to term is a threat to the mother’s life or health. Nonetheless, the Bible speaks of the centrality of the commandment “be fruitful and multiply.” God designed a woman’s body to carry that pregnancy to term and give birth to a child. To terminate that pregnancy for any but the most serious reasons is to frustrate God’s designs.

PARSHAT MISHPATIM
(5762)

FOUR ATTITUDES TOWARDS MONEY – PART 1

“If a man steal an ox or a sheep and kill it or sell it, he shall pay five oxen for an ox and four sheep for a sheep.”
(Exodus 21:37)

Over the next two weeks I would like to share some thoughts taken from my new book The Ten Journeys of Life.
As we go out into the world of business and work to provide for our families, much of our success depends upon our attitude toward money. There is a famous passage in Pirkei Avot which describes four approaches toward money. Let us explore these four attitudes in reverse order, from lowest to highest importance.
The Avaricious Mind-set
“What is yours is mine, and what is mine is mine, this is a wicked person.” Some people are never satisfied with what they have. They try to seize the property of their fellow human beings.
The Talmud teaches, “Who is rich? Whoever is satisfied with their portion” (Avot 4:1). Unfortunately, some people are never satisfied. It often begins with coveting the possessions of our fellow humans, a desire forbidden by the last of the Ten Commandments. Eventually it leads to activities aimed at taking that which legitimately belongs to others. It may involve cheating or even stealing to acquire illegitimately that which belongs to others.
The Torah is filled with laws forbidding activities to acquire another=s property in an illegitimate manner. “You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another” (Leviticus 19:11). “You shall not defraud your neighbor. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning” (Leviticus 19:13). “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, honest weights, an honest ephah and honest hin” (Leviticus 19:35B36).
In the Bible, the penalty for stealing is to return the stolen object, together with a fine equal to the amount stolen. “He [the thief] must make restitution; if he lacks the means, he shall be sold for his theft. But if what he stole . . . be found alive in his possession, he shall pay double.” (Exodus 22:2B3).
However, if the thief steals oxen or sheep and slaughters them, he shall pay four or five times the value of the animal. Why is the penalty so much harsher for oxen and sheep? One must remember that these biblical laws developed during a historical period when the Israelites were shepherds. By stealing and slaughtering animals, thieves were literally taking away their victims’ livelihoods. If the highest form of charity is to help someone earn a living, the lowest form of stealing is to prevent someone from earning a living.
This is reflected in numerous Torah laws. It is forbidden to remove someone’s landmark (Deuteronomy 27:17). Later rabbinic law interpreted this as a prohibition on unfair competition, deliberately trying to force someone out of business. A lender cannot take the millstone as pledge on a loan to someone who owns a mill because the worst form of thievery is to steal someone else=s livelihood.
The Idealistic Mind-set
“What is mine is yours, what is yours is mine,= this is an ignoramus.” Many idealistic people see the solution to inequalities of wealth in removing private property altogether. “Let everybody work for everybody; what is mine is yours and vice versa. Let us all work for the common good and share our income with one another.” As Karl Marx put it, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”
In theory it sounds wonderful. In practice, history has shown that it does not work. In Communist Russia, such socialism was the basis of an entire society. It led to corruption, inefficiency and eventually the breakdown of an entire economy.
Such an idealistic view of money may work in smaller, self-selecting communities. Families function by sharing financial resources among family members. The kibbutz in Israel was founded on shared wealth, with everybody working for the common good and sharing property. Today even kibbutzniks are discovering that humans beings may work hard for themselves and their immediate families but, unless they are extremely idealistic, they are less likely to work hard for the common good.
My oldest friend learned this lesson the hard way. He was part of a communal village in Israel, with all salaries going into a common fund and each family drawing equally. This extremely idealistic form of economy lasted only a few years. Soon, anger and resentment entered communal life. People felt that others were not carrying their full weight; some were drawing benefits without contributing as much as they were capable to the common good. Eventually the village restructured its entire economy, with each family keeping its own salary and paying taxes for common needs.
Socialist approaches to wealth fail because they do not consider the reality of human nature. We humans have a yetzer hara (an evil inclination) and a yetzer hatov (a good inclination), and we will do whatever is necessary to fulfill our own appetites, but working for the common good does not come naturally. A more realistic approach is to encourage individuals to provide for themselves and their families and to accumulate as much wealth as possible. Only then can they learn to share what they have acquired through their own hard work.
(To be continued Terumah 5762.)

PARSHAT MISHPATIM
(5761)

STEALING SOMEONE’S LIVELIHOOD

“When a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox and four sheep for the sheep.” (Exodus 21:37)

In the Ten Commandments, we have learned that stealing is forbidden. In this week=s portion, we learn the details of this prohibition. What is the punishment for the thief who is caught with another’s property?
The Biblical penalty for stealing is to return the stolen object, together with a fine equal to the amount stolen. “He [the thief] must make restitution; if he lacks the means, he shall be sold for his theft. But if what he stole … be found alive in his possession, he shall pay double.” (Exodus 22:2-3)
However, if the thief steals ox or sheep and slaughters them, he shall pay four or five times the value of the animal. Why is the penalty so much harsher for ox and sheep? One must remember that these Biblical laws developed during a historical period when the Israelites were shepherds. By stealing and slaughtering animals, the thief was literally taking away their victim’s livelihood. The lowest form of stealing is to prevent someone from earning a living.
This is reflected in numerous Torah laws. It is forbidden to remove someone’s landmark. (Deuteronomy 27:17) Later rabbinic law interpreted this as a prohibition on unfair competition, deliberately trying to force someone out of business. A lender cannot take the millstone as pledge on a loan to someone who owns a mill.
Stealing is wrong. But it is one matter to steal someone’s property and quite another to steal their ability to earn a living. Human dignity is tied up with the ability to work and provide for one’s self and one’s family. To rob someone of that ability is to steal part of their humanity. That is why the fine is so much harsher for taking sheep from a shepherd. The same would be true of any action that illegitimately forces someone out of business or prevents them from earning a living.
If taking away one’s ability to earn is the lowest form of thievery, helping someone provide for himself or herself is the highest form of charity. Maimonides taught eight levels of giving, with the greatest being giving someone a job, a business loan, an opportunity to provide for themselves and not fall upon the largess of the community. Human dignity is tied up with work; ever since God said to Adam “By the sweat of your brow shall you bring forth bread” (Genesis 3:19), humanity is expected to work.
Helping others earn a living goes beyond acts of charity. We should always use our money as a way to help others provide for themselves. This could mean giving someone a job, particularly someone who is struggling to support himself or herself. It could mean giving one=s business to small business people and entrepreneurs, even if the items may be cheaper on the internet or in mega-stores. It even means being a generous tipper for those who give us personal service, the waiter who brings our food, the taxi driver who transports us, people that clean up our rooms after we use a hotel room.
There is dignity in being a provider. To steal someone’s ability to provide is the lowest form of thievery. To help someone else be a successful provider is the greatest thing we can do with our money.

PARSHAT MISHPATIM
(5760)

WHO OWNS OUR BODY

“When a man opens a pit, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or an ass falls into it, the one responsible for the pit must make restitution.” (Exodus 21:33-34)

In this portion we introduce the Biblical civil code. This includes laws regarding torts, the importance of taking responsibility for damage to another’s property or person. These Biblical rules are further developed in the Talmud and the Rabbinic codes.
There is one fascinating law regarding damages found in the Mishna, the rabbinic codification of the oral laws. If someone says to his or her fellow, destroy my property and you will not be liable, the person is not liable. However, if one says injure my body and you will not be liable, the person is still liable. (Baba Kamma 8:7) We are allowed to relieve someone of responsibility for damages to our property. After all, we own it, and are free to do whatever we want with it.
We are not free to relieve someone of responsibility for damage to our body. This is based on a profound religious idea. We humans do not own our bodies. We occupy our bodies, we are responsible for the maintenance and well-being of our bodies while we are living. But in an ultimate sense, our bodies belong not to us but to God.
This same principle is seen in another Biblical law. “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourself: I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:28) Tattoos are explicitly forbidden in the Torah. The question is why?
Imagine leasing a home. If we bought the home, we are free to paint it whatever color, mark it however we want, as long as we obey local zoning laws. But if we lease a home, it remains someone else’s property. We are allowed the normal wear and tear of living in the home. We are not permitted to make permanent marks.
Our bodies are like that leased home. We are temporary occupants. In an ultimate sense, they belong to God. When our time of occupation is finished, we give them back to God as undamaged as possible. This theological idea has powerful implications for how we live our lives.
There is a popular feminist text called Our Bodies; Ourselves. Whatever the value of the content of this book, the title is foreign to the Biblical vision. We have use of our bodies but they are not ours. That gives us a sacred responsibility to treat our physical selves as a loan from God. Minimally, we need to assure that our bodies have adequate nutrition, exercise, sleep, medical care, and the avoidance of stress. We want to keep that body in as healthy a condition as we are capable.
In addition, when we need to decide such difficult ethical issues as abortion, euthanasia, experimental medical procedures, or self-sacrifice to save others, we begin with the notion that our bodies are on loan. We cannot say, “It is my body and I will do whatever I want.” This may radically change how we deal with all of these controversial religious issues.
Beyond ethics, if we see our bodies as belonging to God, it helps us develop a deep sense of gratitude for our physical existence on this earth. As Jews throughout the world pray on Yom Kippur evening, “As clay we are, as soft and yielding clay, that lies between the fingers of the potter.” From a simple law of torts, we learn the profound religious ideal that God is our creator.