Destroying The Idols Of History

by Rabbi Daniel Friedman
Published in the Edmonton Jewish News, 14 September 2017

(EJNews) – The year is 2117.  Following important research on concussions and serious injuries, it has now been fifty years since “barbaric” sports were outlawed.  Football, wrestling and boxing have been thrown into the dustbin of humankind’s shame, joining other previously banned pursuits such as gladiatorial ‘to the death’ duels.  But every decision has ramifications.  The Government of Canada is facing intense pressure to remove the bust of former Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from the Parliament building.  On the one hand, he was a great leader who contributed so much to this country.  On the other hand, his reputation is chequered undoubtedly by his record of repeated physical assaults on his fellow human beings.

Over the past few weeks, we have seen a spate of challenges to historical figures in North America, some tussles bringing out the worst dregs of society and ending tragically.  The terror in Charlottesville and President Donald Trump’s equivocal response has left us all reeling, fearful of the state of twenty first century anti-Semitism.  In our country, we have not been exempted from the controversies, as we struggle to define our perspectives on the place of certain Canadian historical figures, in light of contemporary values and understandings.  (Thank God, we have been spared the violence of our southern neighbours.)  The latest target of such protests is our first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, whose legacy in dealing with First Nations Canadians is troubling.

Societal values will always change.  Things that are acceptable today will be considered beyond the pale in future generations.  Guaranteed.  That’s why it’s important to have values that are above time and place.  The Torah provides those values.  When do the Torah’s values fail?  Only when we view them through the prism of our short-term 2017 culture and values.

Let’s take one example: Slavery.  Today we all know that slavery is bad.  And yet the Torah seems to condone it!  Viewing the Torah through the lens of today’s fleeting values leads one to be dismissive of G-d’s Word.  But once one realizes that our present lens is what is deficient, not the Torah, then we can begin to understand the meaning of the Torah.  In the case of slavery, it’s pretty much a mistranslation.  A better translation would probably be ‘servitude,’ a term applied throughout our tradition, including to public servants such as rabbis and even the Jewish monarch!  Indeed, our Sages teach that “One who acquires a servant acquires a master over himself.”  Why?  Because the standard the Torah demands when dealing with a servant is incredible: one must share one’s regular meal at the table, provide them with the same standard of shelter and bedding, clothe the servant and his family in an honourable manner, and so on.

In other words, if we see something in the Torah that, in light of today’s values, makes us uncomfortable, we need to approach it in one of two ways.  Either we need to demonstrate the humility of knowing that, in contrast with Torah values, societal values are not static and will change with time. Or, we need to admit that we are probably misunderstanding the Torah; oftentimes due to as basic an issue as a mistranslation.

The alternative option of dismissing the Torah as archaic and outdated is short-sighted and immature and leads to the erosion of Jewish and societal values.  If ultimately nothing in this world is eternally true, then why believe anything at all?  Once we remove our timeless commitment to our foundational text, the Bible, what are we left with?  It’s no wonder that synagogues and churches that have questioned and dismissed its eternal truth are left scratching their heads as to why the next generation is not interested in showing up.  If it’s all made up and open to change based on each generation’s version of morality, why bother with an ancient book?  Today we know better!

There’s something deep in our souls that draws out every Jewish person, even the most “irreligious,” to High Holy day services.  It’s the feeling, however subconscious, that amidst all the fleeting values offered by the world around us, there’s an authenticity that only the synagogue offers.  This Rosh Hashanah, let us all recommit to the eternal truth of the Torah and rejoice in our Divine gift, a guide for all generations.

On behalf of Rabbanit Batya and myself, we wish everyone a healthy, happy, and sweet New Year, and generations of children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces that appreciate our eternal Jewish values!