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.”