Knowing Right Versus Wrong

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By Rabbi Eric Yanoff

Parshat Ki Teitzei

Early in my career as a rabbi, I happened upon someone in my former congregation eating at an outdoor café. I came over to say hello and, in my peripheral vision, I noticed as she not-so-stealthily reached for a thin paper napkin and slid it over her chili-cheese dog with the works.

Honestly, I hadn’t even seen what she was eating, but once she attempted the cover-up — thus calling attention to the meal — it was difficult to avoid observing the cheap, disposable napkin slowly become translucent as it soaked up the grease of the chili-cheese combination.

In general, while I hold the laws of keeping kosher as an important part of my Jewish identification and of Jewish law, history and communal distinctiveness, I do not judge others. As a rabbi, I don’t keep score. It’s a difficult balance, admittedly: How can we sustain Jewish teachings, laws, traditions and practices in a community of varying observances of those teachings, laws, traditions and practices without abandoning a claim to their importance?

I felt badly — even awkward — that instinctively the woman at the café assumed that I (or that Judaism) would judge her. Certainly, her menu choice was not the most in keeping with Jewish tradition, but it was a menu choice, not a moral choice. Eating treif did not make her a bad person. And even if Judaism’s traditional teachings agreed with my practice, it did not make me a better person. The laws of kashrut do not have such moral weight.

Even if we believe that Judaism as a system of living leads us to better living, the individual laws do not hold such moral determinations; indeed, if we judge people’s morals by the stringency of their ritual life, this may be more an indictment of our own morals than those of the person we critique. Such is the teaching of the great Chasidic rebbe, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev.

In his commentary on the part of this week’s parshah, we are commanded to blot out the memory of Amalek, the perennial enemy of the people of Israel, who preyed upon the weak and infirm Israelites at the back of the nation as we wandered through the wilderness.

Even given the Torah’s absolutist condemnation of Amalek, Reb Levi Yitzchak cautions us against looking down on others with complete moral superiority. In his Kedushat Levi commentary about Purim, he quotes our Torah portion: “… It is not only incumbent up on the people of Israel to blot out Amalek … but also to blot out the evil part of ourselves [the ‘mini-Amalek’ that is in each person].”

The Berditchiver Rebbe recognizes a potential for evil within us that rears up suddenly whenever we are either lax or judgmental of others and haughty in our moral and ritual vigilance. We must blot out this inner evil, just like our parshah enjoins us to blot out Amalek. This, in turn, helps attune our radar when things are morally unacceptable.

Judaism does not embrace moral relativism. Of course, some things are beyond the pale, and in those cases we must take a moral stand, without apology or hesitation. But Reb Yitzchak warns us even in the context of judging Amalek how careful we must be in conflating our observance of Judaism with moral fitness. Some laws, most notably the prohibition against murder or theft for example, are moral; others, of ritual particularism, are important nonetheless, but not morally laden.

I believe this distinction is particularly important nowadays, when a disagreement of opinion is too often vilified. We can disagree with others and we can reflect a diversity of practice — indeed, we can see others as incorrect and even wrong — without calling those others evil. Such is the teaching from the end of Tractate Berachot (Babylonian Talmud, 64a): “Talmidei chachamim marbim shalom ba-olam — Talmudic sages increase peace in the world.” The Talmud is, essentially, a record of disagreement and yet these sages, in their disagreement, usually do not vilify one another, but rather sustain peace.

And so, this Shabbat, I pray: May we not be so sure of ourselves and our views that (per Reb Yitzchak) we fail to see the tendency of Amalek within us, to judge, harm or vilify others. May we disagree with passion, but see one another as God’s creations with even greater passion. May we recognize that while some things are out-of-bounds, we (and others) can also be different, or incorrect, or even wrong — without being evil.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Eric Yanoff is a rabbi at Adath Israel and co-president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia. The board is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.

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