This was the D'var Torah I gave for Parashat Behar on May 21, 2022.
Whenever people suggest that Judaism could be separate from politics, I think about this week’s parasha. The Shabbaton and the Yovel (the sabbatical and the jubilee) – these mitzvot are not just personal and spiritual teachings, about what you eat and what you share. They are about the whole system of property and ownership and power, and about our relationship to the land and the ecosystem that provides our food.
Every seven years, it doesn’t matter who owns a field and who has stored up food from the year before. Everyone has access to all of it, and everyone comes side by side to get food from the land and from private storehouses, and maybe they even eat together. Every fifty years, it doesn’t matter who has bought or sold a piece of land and who lives where. All families go back to the land holdings originally given to them in the time of Yehoshua when the people first came into the promised land. Wealthy families give back what they have bought legitimately; poor families are restored to what they needed to sell.
None of this happens individually or one at a time. Both the Shabbaton and the Yovel happen to everyone at the same time, in every region of the land. It is a social experience around property and wealth and power that is shared all at once, by society as a whole.
It occurred to me this week that Shabbaton and Yovel are far more radical than even the Exodus itself, the overturning of Pharaoh, which I have taught often and recently was unlike anything ancient people had ever thought previously about the value of human beings and about power. The Exodus was unprecedented – but it was in response to a situation of actual group suffering, imposed by a specific oppressor. Shabbaton and Yovel are not in response to any specific instance like that. They are pre-programmed responses to the regular things that happen in a society where people work the land and trade food and labor and exchange property. They are for a society that also has good ideas of tzedakah (giving) and chesed (caring acts), which individuals are responsible to carry out.
Without the need for painful suffering on a massive scale, or mobilizing against a tyrant, the Torah in Leviticus 25 mandates the overturning of our relations in the economy and society, making it all change visibly in the open every seven years and every fifty years.
Maybe the end of the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) is the real bookend to the beginning of the Exodus. Exodus begins with our ancestors as slaves building cities for Pharaoh’s regime, and it ends with them building the opposite -- the Mishkan, a spiritual central for the regime of Hashem. “Let them make me a Sanctuary and I will dwell among them,” says Exodus. But now, nearly at the end of Leviticus, people imagine building a system for recalibrating their society on the go, making sure no one can permanently accumulate Pharaoh-like wealth and power over the others. “For to Me the Children of Israel are servants,” says the end of Leviticus – and the Talmudic rabbis explain: For to Me they are servants and not servants to other servants, not slaves to each other. Shabbaton and Yovel are the social and political inoculation against more Pharaohs, even a Pharoah among the Israelites themselves.
Political this is – and yet, it’s not. I’m using the word politics a bit fast and loose, because Parashat Behar does not show us politics in action. We know the sabbatical year was implemented in ancient times and still is today, and in Roman times and modern times there has been politics around it. We have no idea whether the jubilee really ever happened exactly the way the Torah stipulates. Our parasha describes an ideal society, and we can think about the moral and spiritual principles the parasha teaches. But the actual outcome could only be ensured through political activity.
Saying the Torah has social visions doesn’t itself prove that there is a Torah of politics and political action. I love to bask in Shabbaton and Yovel, any excuse to do that is dayenu – but I want to say more about the Torah of political action, which in a way only begins with things our parasha.
I want to use a distinction proposed by Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, though I will take it in a slightly different direction. You may be starting to recognize the Hartman name and Yehuda’s name in particular from many of my d’rashot. For the past few years Yehuda has been teaching around the idea that American Jews ought to distinguish in our civic activity between the moral, the political, and the partisan. Briefly, Yehuda defines the moral as our core social principles; the political as our collaborative strategy and work in society; and the partisan as the activity we do typically within either of the two teams, the Democrats and the Republicans. Yehuda argues that it is bad for America and particularly bad for Jews when we don’t distinguish between the moral, the political, and the partisan.
The moral refers to the principles and values we hold, which generate our ideas about the good society, and the actions we actually perform toward other people and in groups of people we know. The moral is also about working on ourselves as people in society. It’s about being honest about our own individual gifts and our own individual limits. It’s about asking ourselves why we care about this more than that, looking at our own inconsistencies and hypocrisies. The moral is where we make judgments, often about others though it should also be toward ourselves. The moral is about how we do teshuvah around our action and inaction in society -- how we hold ourselves accountable and recalibrate ourselves, as well as the smaller groups within which we talk about politics or we organize. The moral dimension is very spiritual and obviously very Jewish.
The political – I want to use the word in its Aristotelian sense. Not “yeech, politics”, but the elevating work of defining and creating the polis, the best society that is both aligned with our moral values and also cultivates those values at the same time. We are only real in society, and political activity enlarges us and elevates us and completes us. The political brings people together in purposeful work, helps us each discover our gifts and how they fit together, and shows us new things to admire about each other.
The political magnifies our power to achieve visions, on a scale not possible just by small group projects or even by giving tzedakah. The political is how we find the power to bring a society into alignment with the ideals of Shabbaton and Yovel.
The political is also the level where groups ought to try to understand themselves, and look at their own strengths and weaknesses and hypocrisies. Groups need to do teshuvah as well. This is spiritual work and Jewish work, and indeed the Torah presents the Jewish people as a group trying to learn the detailed social covenant from Mt. Sinai, to internalize it and build a society based on it in the promised land.
Finally, the partisan is working for the party and candidates we believe right now can bring our moral and political visions into being. It’s mobilizing behind the specific leaders and groups we believe can do that. When we use the word “politics”, Yehuda points out, what we usually mean is the partisan – picking sides, zero sum, experiencing outrage and supporting one group and being angry at the other.
The moral, the political, the partisan.
Yehuda argues that we have too often collapsed the distinction between the moral, the political, and the partisan. If all we let ourselves look at is the partisan, that becomes our good and evil and our daily religion. We will lose important parts of our moral compass to the extent that most of what we can think about or desire is that our group or favored leader wins. We need the moral as something separate, Yehuda says – and I would add (in my name if not his) that we need the political as distinct from the partisan as well.
People who object to having politics in Judaism say: Stick to the moral. But the moral alone is too general. Saying Tzelem Elohim (the image of God) does not tell us why we should care about Ukraine in this way and Afghanistan in the same way or perhaps a different way. Talking about Shabbaton and Yovel does not tell us what the tax rates should be on income or wealth. Moral principles frame the questions and suggest directions but don’t give us answers. From the moral we need those directions, and we need to circle back to the moral principles when we are doing political thinking and political work.
We need also all the processes of teshuvah – assessing ourselves and what we are bringing to political action, checking our hypocrisy and self-righteousness, making sure we are rooted more in love for those we responsible for or allies for, and less rooted just in hate of those we are against.
Too much of religious politics is the partisan alone, and that is bad for religion generally and terrible for Jews. The partisan is where work is done and things are accomplished. But it is a realm of constant fighting; it cultivates hate and anger and fear. It discourages nuance and punishes ambiguity, and it asks us to hold up as absolutely true things that are only partially true. When we equate all politics with the partisan, the losses that come inevitably in the partisan make all political work angry and fearful and dispiriting and draining, even when we have won something for the time being.
Yehuda says we rent out our moral sense too often to the partisan; and since the partisan is win-lose, our moral judgments become binary as well. Our fellow citizens are good or evil. Our fellow Jews. Yehuda quotes a Pew study that says as much bias as there is, explicit and implicit, against people of other backgrounds, whether religious or ethnic or racial or educational or economic, the most widespread hate in America is toward people of different partisan affiliation.
The moral is crucial; the partisan is where the rubber hits the road. But neither the moral that supplies our core principles, nor the partisan where we accomplish our goals or we lose -- neither of these should be the center. At the center should be the political. At the center should be the political for each of us spiritually, and for us as a Jewish community learning and acting and reflecting.
The political is where we ask how our principles translate, where we ask it again and again, even while we are strategizing and even as we are executing our strategies. We ask whether we are being true to our principles or just think we are.
The political is where we take time from the practical battles to appreciate and admire others: the leaders who motivate us, the teachers and writers who educate us, the people who bring the signs and the food and crunch the numbers. It’s where we see ourselves in a good light as part of such an organism.
The political is where we try to understand those we are fighting against -- for the principles they might have, for the people they are loving and standing up for. These are aspects of our opponents we might learn from or at least learn to answer, if only to make our own moral arguments stronger.
The political isn’t something you do by yourself. It’s not sermons and it’s not Facebook posts, unless they invite conversation. The political is together, and sometimes it even can be done together by partisans opposing each other. It’s what I hope tomorrow’s panel on reproductive rights will model. It’s what groups a lot of you have been involved in doing in your own political work in the local community.
It's not enough for the synagogue to do the moral, and of course we should not be doing the partisan. It’s not good for religion to stay in a corner, or to make itself indistinguishable from a political party. But the political yes, sometimes all together as us and sometimes when we lift up one issue or sometimes when we’re in a learning posture about ourselves as people engaged in the political. That is very much what a religious group should do, and what Jews should do together.
And in that sense, maybe Shabbaton and Yovel are political. Apart from the practical sharing and resetting around food and property, they were ways to get people talking about the world of years 1-6 and years 1-49, and maybe even working on that politically. Or so I fantasize. Our next half year in this country is going to be intensely partisan, and that will be hard. Let’s do our part to elevate the time, by making it more political as well.