A few years back at an inter-religious conference in Jerusalem, I heard a
former Reagan administration official turned Jewish pundit explain the
difference between "rights" and responsibilites"-- the demand for "rights"
by various interest groups being a particular bugaboo of conservatives. He
attempted to argue that the Bible "talks about responsibilities, but not
Unfortunately for him, the next speaker was an Orthodox rabbi, who gently
but devastatingly listed a number of "rights" bestowed on various groups
and individuals by the rabbis quoted in the Mishna and Talmud, including
the 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 too
often but not exclusively seen among Jewish political conservatives.
That's why it was refreshing recently to see a popular television drama
offer a Jewish perspective on a political issue that captured the depth
and nuance of what we call "Torah." On the NBC series "The West Wing," set
in a fictional White House, President Josiah Bartlett (Martin Sheen) is
under pressure to commute the death sentence of a murderer convicted under
federal narcotics law. The inmate's lawyer begins a last-minute,
full-court press on the president's staff, going so far as to contact the
rabbi of White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler (the marvelously
kvetchy Richard Schiff).
In a Saturday morning scene set in a synagogue, Ziegler is summoned to the
White House at the same moment that the rabbi starts a sermon inveighing
against the death penalty, saying "vengeance is not the Jewish way." The
next day the rabbi and Ziegler sit in the sanctuary and debate capital
punishment, while a female cantor practices a lofty Hebrew song ("do it
for the sake of Your Name").
Ziegler reminds the rabbi that the Bible supports the death penalty: "The
commandment says 'thou shalt not murder,' not 'thou shall not kill.' " The
rabbi in turn quotes the Bible on the stoning of wayward children, its
tolerance for slavery and the ban on homosexuality. On these issues, like
capital punishment, "the Bible is wrong," says the rabbi, and it is up to
each generation to apply-and change-its lessons according to the moral
tenor of the times.
Later, in an exchange with the president, Ziegler elaborates on the
rabbi's argument. Yes, the Bible sanctions vengeance and the death
penalty. "But the rabbis couldn't stomach it," says Ziegler, and they
imposed a series of restrictions on courts that made it all but impossible
for the state to take a life. He didn't quote the Talmud, but the
screenwriter clearly had in mind the famous passage that "A Sanhedrin [the
supreme rabbinical court] that puts a man to death once in 7 years (Rabbi
Eleazar ben Azariah says 'Or even once in 70 years') is called a murderous
one." (Mishnah Makkot 1:10)
I couldn't help but compare this episode of "The West Wing" with a story
line a few years back on the hit ABC series "The Practice." In those
episodes (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 his
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 the
father was based on a number of biblical injunctions, including Numbers
35:19 ("the revenger of blood himself shall slay the murderer"). In the
dramatic courtroom climax, the prosecutor (himself Orthodox) challenges
the rabbi by saying, "Are you aware of the Talmud's attitude toward
capital punishment?" But before he can quote the Talmud, the father
explodes, saying he won't be cowed by the prosecutor's "fancy words" and
that he knows that what he did was justified in God's eyes. The prosecutor
never gets to finish, and the jury rules in the father's--and the rabbi's
The rabbi and the father both cited the Bible accurately. But the
prosecutor's reference to Talmud was hardly "fancy words"; rather, it was
an invitation to a debate within Judaism that began almost as soon as the
Five Books of Moses were canonized and that continues to this day.
When Jews refer to "Torah" they are not speaking merely of what the rest
of the world calls the "Old Testament" (and we call the Written Torah).
Torah is really a process-a conversation-that starts with the "Old
Testament" and continues with the Mishna and the Talmud (the Oral Torah),
the rabbinic commentaries of the early Middles Ages, the legal codes of
the late Middle Ages, the responsa literature that continues to be written
today, and the insights that arise whenever Jews come together to learn
and to debate.
The "Old Testament" is the first word in Jewish tradition, but hardly the
last. "It is not the Written Torah that determines the Oral Torah," wrote
the Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz "It is the Oral Torah that
determines what is the Written Torah."
In that regard, Judaism is fundamentally anti-fundamentalist. That's a
lesson lost on the Jewish political leaders and pundits who quote "the
Bible," especially those who are trying to find common ground with
America's politically powerful evangelical Christians. They quote "Jewish
tradition" on everything from abortion to capital punishment,
homosexuality to taxation, and conveniently leave out the mitigating
rabbinic elaborations and clarifications we call Torah. It was this "naked
biblicism," as the English rabbi Louis Jacobs calls it, that led to an
irrevocable schism between the Karaites, a sect that rejected the
authority of the Oral Law, and the Judaism of the rabbis - the Judaism we
consider normative today.
You can't expect every television show to present the spectrum of
rabbinical opinion as subtly as they did in "The West Wing." As for "The
Practice," I for one am glad the girl's father killed the bastard, and
that the jury went on to acquit him. It's just that I wish they had let
the prosecutor finish quoting the Talmud. They cut him off at an
unfortunate moment--basically, at the point where the religion of the Bible