A few years back at an inter-religious conference in Jerusalem, I heard aformer Reagan administration official turned Jewish pundit explain thedifference between "rights" and responsibilites"-- the demand for "rights"by various interest groups being a particular bugaboo of conservatives. Heattempted to argue that the Bible "talks about responsibilities, but notrights."Unfortunately for him, the next speaker was an Orthodox rabbi, who gentlybut devastatingly listed a number of "rights" bestowed on various groupsand individuals by the rabbis quoted in the Mishna and Talmud, includingthe rights guaranteed a bride by the traditional Jewish wedding contract.To me the exchange was a clear demonstration of the danger of relying on"the Bible" as an expression of the Jewish way, a tendency that is toooften but not exclusively seen among Jewish political conservatives.That's why it was refreshing recently to see a popular television dramaoffer a Jewish perspective on a political issue that captured the depthand nuance of what we call "Torah." On the NBC series "The West Wing," setin a fictional White House, President Josiah Bartlett (Martin Sheen) isunder pressure to commute the death sentence of a murderer convicted underfederal narcotics law. The inmate's lawyer begins a last-minute,full-court press on the president's staff, going so far as to contact therabbi of White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler (the marvelouslykvetchy Richard Schiff). In a Saturday morning scene set in a synagogue, Ziegler is summoned to theWhite House at the same moment that the rabbi starts a sermon inveighingagainst the death penalty, saying "vengeance is not the Jewish way." Thenext day the rabbi and Ziegler sit in the sanctuary and debate capitalpunishment, while a female cantor practices a lofty Hebrew song ("do itfor the sake of Your Name"). Ziegler reminds the rabbi that the Bible supports the death penalty: "Thecommandment says 'thou shalt not murder,' not 'thou shall not kill.' " Therabbi in turn quotes the Bible on the stoning of wayward children, itstolerance for slavery and the ban on homosexuality. On these issues, likecapital punishment, "the Bible is wrong," says the rabbi, and it is up toeach generation to apply-and change-its lessons according to the moraltenor of the times.Later, in an exchange with the president, Ziegler elaborates on therabbi's argument. Yes, the Bible sanctions vengeance and the deathpenalty. "But the rabbis couldn't stomach it," says Ziegler, and theyimposed a series of restrictions on courts that made it all but impossiblefor the state to take a life. He didn't quote the Talmud, but thescreenwriter clearly had in mind the famous passage that "A Sanhedrin [thesupreme rabbinical court] that puts a man to death once in 7 years (RabbiEleazar ben Azariah says 'Or even once in 70 years') is called a murderousone." (Mishnah Makkot 1:10)
I couldn't help but compare this episode of "The West Wing" with a storyline a few years back on the hit ABC series "The Practice." In thoseepisodes (based on a novel by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, a CLAL Associate and Beliefnet columnist), a rabbi is arrested for giving tacit approval to a father who says he intends to (and later does) gun down the suspected murderer of hisdaughter. The show went on to a lively and fascinating defense of the "Jewish view"on revenge and vigilantism. The rabbi maintains that his advice to thefather was based on a number of biblical injunctions, including Numbers35:19 ("the revenger of blood himself shall slay the murderer"). In thedramatic courtroom climax, the prosecutor (himself Orthodox) challengesthe rabbi by saying, "Are you aware of the Talmud's attitude towardcapital punishment?" But before he can quote the Talmud, the fatherexplodes, saying he won't be cowed by the prosecutor's "fancy words" andthat he knows that what he did was justified in God's eyes. The prosecutornever gets to finish, and the jury rules in the father's--and the rabbi's--favor.The rabbi and the father both cited the Bible accurately. But theprosecutor's reference to Talmud was hardly "fancy words"; rather, it wasan invitation to a debate within Judaism that began almost as soon as theFive Books of Moses were canonized and that continues to this day.When Jews refer to "Torah" they are not speaking merely of what the restof the world calls the "Old Testament" (and we call the Written Torah).Torah is really a process-a conversation-that starts with the "OldTestament" and continues with the Mishna and the Talmud (the Oral Torah),the rabbinic commentaries of the early Middles Ages, the legal codes ofthe late Middle Ages, the responsa literature that continues to be writtentoday, and the insights that arise whenever Jews come together to learnand to debate. The "Old Testament" is the first word in Jewish tradition, but hardly thelast. "It is not the Written Torah that determines the Oral Torah," wrotethe Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz "It is the Oral Torah thatdetermines what is the Written Torah."In that regard, Judaism is fundamentally anti-fundamentalist. That's alesson lost on the Jewish political leaders and pundits who quote "theBible," especially those who are trying to find common ground withAmerica's politically powerful evangelical Christians. They quote "Jewishtradition" on everything from abortion to capital punishment,homosexuality to taxation, and conveniently leave out the mitigatingrabbinic elaborations and clarifications we call Torah. It was this "nakedbiblicism," as the English rabbi Louis Jacobs calls it, that led to anirrevocable schism between the Karaites, a sect that rejected theauthority of the Oral Law, and the Judaism of the rabbis - the Judaism weconsider normative today.
You can't expect every television show to present the spectrum ofrabbinical opinion as subtly as they did in "The West Wing." As for "ThePractice," I for one am glad the girl's father killed the bastard, andthat the jury went on to acquit him. It's just that I wish they had letthe prosecutor finish quoting the Talmud. They cut him off at anunfortunate moment--basically, at the point where the religion of the Biblebecomes Judaism.