Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning- September 26, 2012
Proclaim Freedom for All: The Use of Torah in American Politics
Delivered at Rollins Chapel
Forty-two years ago, I had the privilege of studying at the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Illinois. The Rosh Yeshiva (the Head of the Yeshiva) was Aharon Soloveitchik, a brilliant scholar, Talmudist. He was a man who was as comfortable in academia with a Ph.D. from University of Berlin as he was with a page of Gemara. You knew that you were in the presence of genius. Apples do not fall far from the tree and today his grandson, Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik, continues this great tradition of scholarship at Yeshiva University. His grandson is not afraid to be involved in the politics of our time; nor was his grandfather, the latter an advocate in his time for civil rights and for ending the War in Vietnam.
This past summer, at the Republican National Convention, Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik gave a stirring invocation. Whether one agrees or disagrees with his form of political activism, as his grandfather might have, all of us can say with great pride that both the Jewish Bible and Israel were etched into the consciousness of those at the convention and those watching on through the various media. The theme of his invocation was taken from Leviticus 25:10, the passage wherein we are to proclaim liberty throughout the land, which is inscribed on the Liberty Bell. He spoke of our freedoms and those of Israel as beacons of light unto the world.
The use of the Bible was also invoked by President Barack Obama in his comments to the Union of Reform Judaism biennial convention. The first twelve minutes were wonderful, when he talked about the bar and bat mitzvah season that his daughters were going to every weekend with their friends. He described the long discussions about the dresses they could wear to the parties and negotiating the time, they had to return from the party. At one particular dinner, Michaela said to him, “You know Dad, at every one of these they give something called a d’var torah. She went onto explain to him what that meant. At this point, rather than being a parent who learns about Jewish culture through his children, his speech began to resemble the invocation of Rabbi Soloveitchik as he advocated a particular political point of view that he claimed was grounded on the Jewish ideal of tikkun olam (repair of the world) and that through the use of the word הנני – a word in that week’s Parashah – one had to be present to do the hard work to advance the President’s program.
Neither Rabbi Soloveitchik nor President Obama “misrepresented” the text or Judaism. Both made American Jews proud that our faith was center stage. However, they did not tell the whole story. Obama’s approach was so broad that it is a little unmanageable in a Yom Kippur morning sermon and his use of the Hebrew word הנני (here I am G-d, ready to do that which you command) opened the door for whatever one’s political agenda might be and have it cloaked in the
symbols of that which is Divine. It was also difficult because of his repeated use of word tikun olam created, as my teacher Rabbi Ben Zion Wacholder, z”l, might say if was alive today, “problems.”
The use of Scripture and sacred text in our world today is my theme for this morning. I believe we have something important to contribute, not in terms of political advocacy, for this is question of conscious. Politics come and go. The Torah, however, is sacred. How do we preserve our tree of life – עץ חיים – in a society that is evolving and where separation of church from state is a cherished ideal? How do we legitimately extract ideals from these texts and then advocate for them in a society of diverse faiths, beliefs, and non-beliefs?
In discussing this question, I will focus on Rabbi Soloveitchik’s use of Leviticus 25:12 for its singularity, as it is a little more manageable than the sweeping conclusions of our President and the repeated use of the complex idea of תקון עולם.
A Framework Derived from my Teacher
I have studied Torah for a long period time. After 5 years of study at Hebrew Union College, I thought I had a solid foundation. But after 5 years of graduate study and now 7 years of study with a group that meets once a week and is only half-way finished with the Jewish Bible (Kings I), I am aware of its complexity as
a moral and legal narrative, regardless of the time and place in which we live. This is due in part because our interpretive tradition can date as far back as the 1st Temple period (circa. 900 to 586 b.c.e.).
I learned four principles in Biblical exegesis and its application from my teacher, Rabbi Wacholder, z”l. The first principle was to cite the entire verse, even if it seemed irrelevant, and especially if it seemed to refute the principle that I sought to derive from that part of the verse that I deemed favorable. The second principle is related to the first. Be authentic to the entire passage and its context. This protects the text’s sacredness. Third – one that he always cautioned against – was to make sure that a minimum to read and to cite the Rashi. This would help to prevent overreaching which leads us to the last. Fourth – avoid sweeping conclusions in the application of the principles to the problems of today.
To summarize, the four rules are as follows:
1. Cite the entire verse.
2. Be aware of the context in which the verse appears.
3. Study and explain how the tradition may have understood the passage.
4. Be tentative in the application of such conclusions to today’s world.
These rules would help preserve the sacredness and authenticity of the text. Equally important, it would help insure against overreaching.
וקדשתם את שנת החמישים שנה וקראתם דרור בארץ לכל-יושביה יובל הוא תהיה לכם ושבתם איש אל אחזתו ואיש אל משפחתו תשובו:
Moreover, you shall sanctify the 50th year and proclaim freedom throughout the land to all of its inhabitants. It shall be unto you a jubilee and you shall return each person to his inheritance; you shall restore each person to his family.
There are three components to this passage; two not mentioned in the invocation. The first is to sanctify the 50th year as one of jubilees. The second is the proclamation of freedom for everyone. The centerpiece of his stirring invocation was this declaration of freedom. However, two other components were not mentioned. These were as follows. One, you (second person plural) shall return the original inheritance to the person, and each man should be returned to his family.
Let us begin our discussion with background material as to this phrase “You shall return the original inheritance to the person.” When the Children of Israel were to cross over into Israel, the land was to be divided according to tribe. This is detailed both in Deuteronomy and in the Book of Joshua. In each tribe, there were families to which a portion of that land was to be given. Every person, except those belonging to the tribe of Levi, was to have a homestead.
Here is where the “returning” portion beginning in the 50th year occurs. If in the course of 50 years one needed to sell his land to provide for his family, pay off a debt, or transfer the land and become an indentured servant, the sale or transfer was not permanent. Every fifty years, the land would be returned to the original family.
People could sell, mortgage, and the like. If, however, one defaulted on a secured loan, the mortgagor could take the land, but only for a limited amount of time; that is until the year of jubilees. Moreover, if one wanted to either sell one’s land or give a tenancy to harvest the crop thereon, the number of years left for the jubilee had to be carefully calculated to assess its true value.
This proclamation of the year of Jubilee was to be made in the 49th year on Yom Kippur. The Shofar was to be sounded and then in the 50th year, the land would be returned to its original owner. No one lost his or her land forever. The land would always revert back. As indicated, a Hebrew indentured servant was to be returned as well to his family, even if taken as a slave in the 48th or 47th year.
In the 50th year, after liberty was proclaimed, the land was to lay fallow and everyone was to live entirely off the land. One was to welcome the poor, the orphan, and widow onto her or his property and to partake of whatever grew naturally.
One could assert that the commandment of the יובל – the year of Jubilees – was to provide everyone a fresh, economic start as part of this liberty. One other point must be stressed. This commandment and most others only applied to the Israelites in Israel. It had no application to other nations. The 613 commandments, save for seven very general ones, were only intended to be for our ancestors and by extension to us. The proclamation of freedom, in theory, applied only to the land and people of Israel.
Read the Rashi
One of the common mistakes I made when studying our sacred literature was to try to draw some grand conclusion; that is to over-apply the text to reach some universal principal or ideal. When I would do so, my teacher would wait for me to finish and he would say, “Nu read the Rashi.” This was his gentle way of telling me that before I became too carried away, I should study at least just a little more. Let us see how Rashi, the scholar par excellence of the tradition, understood this passage.
Rashi explains each of the major terms used in this passage. In hallowing the Jubilee year, it shall be proclaimed by a בית דין – a rabbinic court. It is a sacred proclamation that is religious in nature. וקראתם דרור – and you shall proclaim liberty. However, the focus was one intended for Hebrew slaves; whether one had
his ear bored to show that he was to be ruled by another beyond the six year limit referred to in Exodus or whether one whose six years of indentured servitude had expired.
Rashi cites a Midrash of Rabbi Judah in which the etymology of the word דרור is explored. This term means dwelling – like דירה –, which in Modern Hebrew means apartment. In this context, Rabbi Judah provides that one may dwell wherever he or she may so choose and is not under the authority of others. Freedom in this sense meant economic freedom from the rule of others.
היובל הוא – It is a jubilee. It is so called because the word also means horn and thus is synonymous with the שופר. Once again, the passage has both religious significance as an independent year of observance and has a direct connection to one of the richest symbols of these ימים הנוראים – the Shofar. The last two terms ושבתם איש אל אחוזתו and ואיש אל-משפחתו תשובו refer to both the original land that his family had inherited upon entering the land and the reference to family is to the one who had his ear bored. In Exodus, when a Hebrew indentured servant was liberated at the end of the six-year term, he was to go free without his family if his “owner” had provided him with a wife. Even the children would remain, for they were ‘owned’ by the Master. In Deuteronomy, the family of the indentured servant, regardless if they were his before or given to him by his master, were to also be released at the end of the six year period. Moreover, the owner is to give
them provisions so he truly can get a fresh start. Keeping it simple, however, in the year of jubilees, he was to be reunited with his family. As a consequence of the Jubilee, he and his family became completely free.
Application to the United States of America
This part is the most difficult. Liberty, freedom, and justice for all are principles that each of us learn as children. One could argue that to take select phrases from the Bible and to use them to help further promote these deeply held values is to the social good of our country. One could also suggest that all Rabbi Soloveitchik did was take the Jewish Bible and quote a section that promoted values that exist separate and apart from religious doctrine. Only good can occur for we show that we are a part of our country and seek to be part of the political dialogue and discussion.
Yet, I believe with all my heart, that above all, that the rich and vibrant textual heritage needs to remain sacred and above the use of political discourse. The use of our sacred texts is a complicated process. Sometimes after years of study, I find that simply trying to understand the Torah is arduous, let alone apply its teachings, its principles, and ideals to our world. One could go down a wild course about the economics of the Bible in defining liberty as being economic restoration and that goes down an even more dangerous road in our society.
It is also quite clear that this proclamation invoked a religious time; a sacred time, like a Shabbat or Festival. The sounding of Shofar on Yom Kippur – a day in which to fast, to repent, and to pray – suggests that the pursuit of freedom is not a cause for the kind of celebration reflected in our country on the 4th of July, but rather one of solemnity and linked to holiness.
It is interesting the words chosen in this verse are ושבתם and תשובו, for in each word the root is שוב, which means to return or restore. This same root is also used to form the word תשובה – repentance. One could suggest many things about this passage where we are commanded within the context of Yom Kippur to proclaim liberty throughout the land. The passage could be used by anyone, whether conservative, centrist, or liberal. Instead of being a time for joy and for applause to celebrate, it could also be used as a time for national introspection, of serious reflection about the kind of society we currently have and the kind that we seek to achieve with a sense of deep respect for our neighbors and our fellow Americans.
For us to be good citizens and to make our contribution to this wonderful country that we live in, we must be knowledgeable of our Scripture through study and reflection. It is only then that we will truly be able to separate church from state, so as to underscore just where one ends and the other begins.