“The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, 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 this weekend 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.
It’s also worthwhile to remember why our American forefathers wrote the Declaration. It is about an unjust ruler whom the people decided to overthrow, and consists of a long catalogue of complaints against the British king, explaining why the signers believed they had the right to leave the realm and establish their own government.
In the Jewish tradition we remind ourselves of our fundamental document, the Torah, by reading it regularly; at least once a week. Reading both sets of texts, the fairly new secular and the ancient religious, helps us remember what our ancestors were thinking. It also reminds us that their realities were quite different from ours. The result is that there are elements of both that must be understood differently today, from a new era that offers a new perspective.
This is why I disagree with the originalists, who insist that our nation’s laws must reflect the original thinking, that is, the intent of its founding documents.
However wise, learned, and forward thinking the founding fathers were, they lived in a world that is unrecognizable to us today. Theirs was a world in which 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 when God instituted the Pesach sheni, second Passover, for those who are unable to celebrate the holiday at the appointed time. It happened when the five daughters of Zelophehad argued that they should be able to inherit property and God changed the law to acknowledge a woman’s right to inherit her father’s estate if she has no brothers.
The best example of systematic change within Judaism is the Talmud. This 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 to change it dramatically. The sages who wrote the Talmud chose the second, and that’s why Judaism exists today.
These changes, those within the Torah and those of the Talmud, are clear indicators that the laws of the Torah were meant to grow and change as we humans grew and changed.
The Talmud is famous for giving several sides of an argument and not deciding which is correct. The sages of the Talmud believed that discussion itself has value. Their conversations left openings for new ideas and points of view to bubble up, years and even millennia later.
The arguments between the sages and their followers were almost never angry or malicious. There is a famous passage in the Talmud that teaches about the most famous pair of conflicting schools of thought, the schools of Hillel and Shammai, and how their conflict was resolved:
“For three years there was a dispute between the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel, the former asserting, ‘the law is in agreement with our view,’ and the latter contending, ‘the law is in agreement with our view.’
“Then a heavenly voice announced, ‘The utterances of both are the words of the living God, but the law is in agreement with the rulings of the school of Hillel.’
“Since however, both are the words of the living God, what was it that entitled the school of Hillel to have law fixed in agreement with their rulings? Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of the school of Shammai and they were even so humble as to mention the opinions of the school of Shammai before their own.” (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b)
Jewish tradition asks us to do two things: One – Ask questions and be open to new ideas, new perspectives, and the possibility of change. Two – Be kind to one another even when you disagree.
New interpretations of old laws will continually be considered, sometimes discarded, sometimes adopted. The U.S. Constitution is a document that has been amended many times and just last week the Supreme Court made two important rulings that contradict elements of the Constitution: they have ruled to forbid abortion under federal law, and to permit school prayer. Both of these rulings will make indelible changes to the nature of our nation. Both of them will affect Jew and non-Jew alike. And to me, both of these rulings, written by an entirely Christian, conservative supermajority, are simply wrong.
But laws change as communities change. There are 27 amendments to the Constitution. Our job going forward is to ensure that a conservative minority of Americans do not dominate American law, simply because a conservative president stacked the bench with judges who agree with him.
We can and must continue to lobby for positive change. We can and must take our grievances to the court system and to the other branches of government to overturn these decisions. And we can and must speak out loudly for our ideals.
I know that not everyone agrees with my politics, nor with my moral outrage at the recent rulings of the court. If you are among those who disagree, then you too are free to speak out for what you believe in. The only sin is to remain silent.
May we each be blessed to be part of this ongoing conversation within our communities, to be willing to grow and change, and to bring our various heritages with us as we do so.
This blog post is a slightly edited version of the July 4th weekend sermon I gave at Congregation Kol HaNeshama.