I Don’t Care What the Bible Says

I don’t care what the Bible says.  I am a rabbi, but I don’t care what the Bible says.

This is neither an admission of atheism (I am not), nor is it a statement of indifference about the power and importance of sacred religious texts, for I do believe that our sacred texts have much to teach us and can serve as a powerful guide to life.

When I say that I don’t care what the Bible says, I mean that I do not support the use of select quotes from the Bible to justify human cruelty.  Known as “proof texting,” isolated, out-of-context quotations from a document, in this case the Bible, are sometimes used by people to establish or justify a specific idea.  It’s not unheard of to use the Torah in this manner.  When Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated 23 years ago in Tel Aviv, some radical Jews used a verse in the Book of Exodus, one that allows the killing of a “rodef” (someone who pursues another to commit a violent act), to exonerate Rabin’s assassin and blame the prime minister for his own death.  Reasonable Jews with a conscience and a moral compass rejected out of hand the hijacking and the desecration of the Bible to justify murder.

People who claim that the Bible can be used to justify whatever human schemes are hatched are themselves falsely righteous.  They amount to what Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk called a “tzadik in peltz,” a righteous person wrapped in a fur coat.  He used to say that when it’s cold out, a truly righteous person starts a fire to make others warm, but a person who is not genuinely righteous wraps himself in a fur coat.   Such a person uses righteousness as a façade but it is not an inner quality.

That was my reaction to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who used a quote from the New Testament to support the cruel separation of children from their parents.  He cited the Apostle Paul and his “clear and wise” command to obey the laws of the government because “God ordained them for the purpose of order.”  Said AG Sessions, “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and the lawful.”

Of course, the application of fair and consistent law is the foundation of a decent and civil society.  But I’d push back on the assertion that order and law are good in themselves and protect the weak and the lawful.  It’s reasonable to counter argue that the strict upholding of law doesn’t always protect the weak and innocent.  That’s why Jewish law distinguishes between law and ethics, between doing what the law requires, and what we sense is good and right.  Jewish law requires that we implement a standard of “lifnim meshurat ha-din,” or going above and beyond the letter of the law to seek out the spirit of the law.

But a debate on the rule of law is beside the point, as Mr. Sessions was using the Bible in a deceptive manner.  Can it really be argued that the Bible endorses the separation of families, even families who are violating US law by illegally crossing our border?  Mr. Sessions, as do others who act in a similar manner, was weaponizing the Bible, using its verses out of context to justify whatever end he has in mind.  I had the same reaction to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, a deeply religious man who is committed to the application of his religious principles to his work as EPA administrator, who claimed that the Bible endorses the idea of “harvesting the earth’s natural resources for use by mankind.”  I’m not sure what verses he was quoting, but if I had an opportunity speak with Mr. Pruitt I’d convey the Jewish perspective that we are partners with God in preserving the earth for future generations, not permitted to use whatever we want in whatever reckless manner we choose for today’s needs.  Put differently, I’d tell him that from my point of view, the Bible actually endorses the use of clean energy, not coal.

There’s no doubt that illegal immigration is a problem that must be solved.  But I hope that reasonable people will concur that separating families does absolutely nothing to achieve the goal of immigration reform.  By admission of more than one senior member of the administration, the tactic is being used as a deterrent to migrant families.  The hope apparently is that word will spread to others who have not yet made it to the border not to try to cross, as they will risk being separated from their children and will likely see their children traumatized.  In this regard, a policy of separating families is the equivalent of child abuse.

An open, honest debate on immigration reform is certainly needed.  But in such a debate no one should selectively quote from the Bible to apply a veneer of righteousness and honorable faith to justify doing something that is, by all measures, simply cruel.

To such a misuse of the Bible, I’d say “I don’t care what the Bible says.”

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Yosef Kibita Belongs in Israel

Much has been said recently about fraying relations between Israel and the Diaspora, with tension centered around several key issues connected to Israel’s democratic nature.  Those who are critical of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank often express the concern that the occupation is unacceptable in a just and democratic society, and engage in activism in order to change the status quo.  The push back to that point of view is often that those who do not live in Israel, and thus do not assume the risks of living in a dangerous region, should not criticize the political decisions made by Israelis, who do assume those risks.

The tension between Israel and North American Jewry also centers around the issue of religious pluralism and the power of the state sanctioned and funded Chief Rabbinate to impose religious law on Israeli society.  If Israel is the spiritual homeland of the Jewish people from around the world, then all Jews, no matter where they live, should have a stake in how Judaism is lived and expressed in our common homeland.  Jews who make their home in New Jersey, wherever they happen to be on the denominational spectrum, have a right to have their religious ideology recognized and respected in the State of Israel.  The current situation, which gives undue power to the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate to oversee marriage, conversion, divorce and kashrut, stifles the very idea of religious pluralism, tolerance and choice.  One cannot argue that only those who live in Israel should be entitled to shape religious policy in the Jewish state, even if that policy is government driven and funded with taxpayer money.  All Jews, wherever they live, have a stake in how Judaism is lived and expressed in Israel.  Conservative rabbis in Israel should have the right to officiate at weddings and divorces, and welcome Jews-by-Choice as they see fit. That right should not be eclipsed by state empowered rabbis, acting with hubris, to exclude and dismiss those who hold different views than they do.  It’s simply not the Jewish way.

A case in point should draw our attention and even outrage.  It concerns Yosef Kibita, a Ugandan Jew who belongs to the Abayudaya Jewish community which numbers over 2,000 members and began practicing Judaism about 100 years ago.  They are a formally recognized group, in their case embraced by the worldwide Conservative-Masorti movement, which is a standard that must be met to qualify for the Law of Return, a provision that enables any Jew to claim immediate citizenship in the State of Israel.  Converts are eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return regardless of what movement they are affiliated with, provided they come from a recognized Jewish community.  Yosef Kibita was converted by a Conservative Rabbi and is now in Israel under a tourist visa.  He has been informed by the Ministry of the Interior that he must leave the country by June 14 or risk deportation, which has asserted that his conversion does not meet the standards necessary to satisfy the Law of Return.

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The refusal of the Interior Ministry to approve Mr. Kibita’s application for citizenship under the Law of Return is an outrage.  Motivating Rabbi Aryeh Deri, Minister of the Interior, and all those under him, is the narrow view that only their understanding of what constitutes a proper conversion is acceptable.  The interior minister declared the Jewish community of Abayudaya to be unrecognized as belonging to the Jewish people.  In so doing, he has dismissed out of hand the standing and legitimacy of Conservative rabbis.

Could there be any other motivation behind this blatant refusal to grant citizenship to Yosef Kibita?  There is some reason to believe that racism exists in Israel, as it does in the United States, and that it is racism that lurks behind the decision to bar Ugandan Jews from becoming citizens of Israel.  Ethiopian Jews who immigrated to Israel a generation ago faced terrible and humiliating racism from “established” Israelis, and many Sephardic Jews have been ostracized economically and socially for generations.  It’s not pleasant to recognize and admit it, but it’s an unavoidable conclusion that Yosef Kibita is being refused citizenship because he is an African with dark skin.

What can we, who live in New Jersey, do in response to the Israeli government’s rejection of a Jewish community from Africa?  How can we stand up for the legitimacy of our movement and understanding of Judaism?  And how can we oppose the ugliness of racism, even if it is to be found in our beloved Israel?

We can support the efforts of the Masorti Movement to petition this terrible decision in Israel’s Supreme Court.  A fund has been set up to cover the legal costs.  I encourage you to donate by clicking here or by sending a check, with the word “Abayudaya” on it, to:

Masorti Foundation

475 Riverside Dr, Suite 832

New York, New York 10115

Israel is our spiritual homeland, and we have a right, even a duty, to do what we can to ensure that our way of life is recognized and respected, even from all the way across the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

RABBI MARK COOPER