“…When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
This is an abbreviated version of the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, celebrated across the United States today with picnics and fireworks.
It’s worthwhile to occasionally remind ourselves of the contents of this, and the other founding documents of our nation, written nearly 250 years ago.
In my tradition we remind ourselves of our fundamental document, the Torah, by reading it regularly; weekly in fact. Reading both sets of texts, the secular and the religious, helps us remember what our ancestors were thinking and to understand that their realities were quite different from ours. The result is that there are elements of both that must be understood differently from a new perspective.
This is why I have a problem with originalists who want our nation’s laws to reflect the intent of its founding documents. The originalists believe that we must adhere to the original thinking behind the words.
But however wise and learned and forward thinking the founding fathers were, they lived and debate in a world that is unrecognizable to us today. In a world where humans owned other humans, and neither women’s voices nor those of people of color were heard or considered.
I have the same problem with fundamentalists who believe that the words of the Bible are immutable. But in the case of the Bible, there is evidence in its own pages that this is not so.
There were occasions in the Torah when God changed God‘s own mind. It happened in the Torah portion we read this weekend, which tells the story of the five daughters of Zelophehad; Machlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milchah, and Tirzah.
They went to Moses and said, Our father is dead, we have no brothers, and you are portioning out land for when we get into the promised land. But according to the law, women can’t inherit. What about us?
Moses didn’t know what to tell them, so he went to God, and God said; Here is a new law: Daughters can inherit if they have no brothers.
There were further provisions about other circumstances, such as if there were no children the property goes to male relatives. It was not a complete break from the old law, but it was a step in a new direction.
The best example of systematic change in Judaism is the Talmud itself. This enormous and complex compendium was created for a simple reason: The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. Judaism was a sacrificial cult; without a Temple, no sacrifices could be performed. The only two options were to give up on Judaism entirely, or change it dramatically. The sages who wrote the Talmud chose the second, and that’s why Judaism exists today.
This openness to fundamental change is a clear indicator that the laws of the Torah were meant to change as human society grew and changed.
The Talmud is famous for giving several sides of an argument and not stating which is correct. The discussion itself is of value. It leaves openings for new ideas and points of view to bubble up, years and even millennia later.
Jewish tradition expects us to ask questions, to challenge old verities and seek new and meaningful ways to keep our tradition fresh and relevant.
May we be blessed to be part of this ongoing conversation, to be willing to grow and change, and to bring our Jewish heritage with us as we do so.