Posted on March 27, 2020 by Rabbis for Human Rights for their Weekly Torah Portion
As we begin to read the Book of Leviticus, we begin to think about the role that priests had among the Israelites. While it is true that the priesthood of the people of Israel was hereditary to the descendants of Aharon, we all feel connected to the idea of a priesthood through verses such as:
“’You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel” (Exodus 19:6).
How many of us really know the meaning of the term ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation’? Do we need to take responsibility at some level to be recognized as such by the rest of the nations? Preceding this verse is a conditional statement:
“Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine” (Exodus 19:5).
Rabbi Elazar (Yalkut Shimoni 959:36): “Greater is one who does righteousness and justice than one who has sacrificed all the sacrifices as is said: ‘To do what is right and just is more desired by the Lord than sacrifice’” (Proverbs 21:3). The importance of “doing righteousness and justice” is greater in the eyes of the Lord than even the one who makes all the sacrifices in a perfect way as described by the Book of Leviticus. And therefore, before we think about how to build the Temple today, we should instead be focusing on how to build a society based on justice.
Building such a society requires empathy for the most vulnerable of those living among us. It is natural to forget after two thousand years that the Hebrew word גר “Ger” does not only refer to those who convert to Judaism (“Ger Tzedek“), but also to a ‘resident stranger’ (“Ger Toshav“).
In the Babylonian Talmud (Avodah Zara 64b) it says:
Who is a ger toshav? It is anyone who has accepted upon himself before three ḥaverim, i.e., people devoted to the meticulous observance of mitzvot, especially halakhot of ritual purity, teruma, and tithes, not to worship idols. This is the statement of Rabbi Meir. And the Rabbis say: Anyone who has accepted upon himself observance of the seven mitzvot that the descendants of Noah accepted upon themselves is a ger toshav.
Maimonides in his Responsa 448 explains that Islam as a religion is an example of pure monotheism. Basing himself upon this decision, Rabbi Menachem Meiri (1249-1315) says that, “There are those who say that the Ishmaelites (Muslims) are not idolators and that they should be related to as Ger Toshav.”
A week ago, I published two articles in a peer reviewed academic journal called Brill. The articles were based on the work that I did at the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary showing that the halakhic status of non-Jews in the land of Israel can contribute to peace building; that this in an example for how religion can act as a force which contributes to peacebuilding instead of conflict. A comprehensive analysis of the term Ger Toshav leads directly to the legitimization of non-Jews as equal citizens according to Jewish Law.
Upon getting to the heart of the Book of Leviticus, we will read the following verses:
The Ger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God (Leviticus 19:34).
Those in Israel who advocated and legislated the passing of the Nation-State of the Jewish People Law must ask what it means to be “Jewish.” It can be clearly understood that the Jewish civil ethic is to treat every non-Jewish resident of the land as they would treat their Jewish counterpart in every way. For as another part of Leviticus reinforces:
You shall have one law for Ger and citizen alike: for I the Lord am your God (Leviticus 24:22).
The process of building such a society built on righteousness and justice requires that all sectors be in dialogue. Essential questions that will seed our eventual success can be asked such as: How do we build a society that accepts diversity without erasing the uniqueness of each other? This question cannot be answered only within Jewish society. We have a duty to involve everyone who lives with us here. Here in the Galilee, we are blessed with widespread interreligious and multicultural representation due to the variety of populations that exist within it. As a representative microcosm of Israeli society, the Galilee can lead the way forward.
If we leave the religious world, there are also scientists who understand the need for shared society. Dr. Eilat Shavit, a senior lecturer in the philosophy of science at the Tel-Hai College, says that Israeli society can only exist and thrive when its different parts are able to be in connection and embrace symbiosis. “We have a lot to learn from life in nature, where the most important thing is to recognize the diversity and symbiosis that exist between different entities that need each other to survive.” As the world responds to the coronavirus disease, we see that sharing information from various sources is helpful in seeking a vaccine and a way to be resilient as we discover anew how to live in a way that is conscious of the other among us.
Like education and health, building a shared society requires dedicated resources. That is why I am renewing the Galilee Foundation for Value Education here in Misgav. The foundation will create a space for Jewish and Arab youth to learn leadership skills in the outdoors and be in dialogue with the guidance of experts in conflict resolution from around the world. Leadership studies in nature will bring both sides together to see a common path towards a shared society where justice is at its core.
Blessings of health and Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Raanan Mallek is the Masorti Rabbi of the Misgav municipality in the Galilee, community Rabbi of Shorashim and a board member of Rabbis for Human Rights.