Friday, May 21, 2010

A World Without The Torah

The Holiday of Shavu'ot celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and is also known as Hag Matan Torateinu (the Festival of the Giving of Our Torah).  The Torah also known as the Pentateuch, refers to the Five Books of Moses—the entirety of Judaism's founding legal and ethical religious texts.  Thus defining what Judaism is and how Jews are to behave in this world.

Now imagine this:

From by Sara Yoheved Rigler
What would the world look like if the Torah had never been given? Join me, if you will, for a tour of New York City in a hypothetical world where the revelation at Sinai never took place.

We drive across the Brooklyn Bridge, speed down the FDR Drive, and park our car in a massive concrete-and-steel garage. We walk through the streets of downtown Manhattan and crane our necks to gaze at the glittering tops of the skyscrapers. Knowing that the pagan civilizations of antiquity excelled in technological accomplishments, we're not surprised that technology forges ahead in a world devoid of Torah.

Next we meander through Lincoln Center. We hear the music of a concert in progress, pass a theater where a contemporary drama is being enacted, and see well-dressed people lined up to buy tickets for the ballet. Art does not need Torah to flourish.

From there we head to Wall Street. We peek into the Stock Exchange. Business and commerce are thriving. No difference here.

Our tour then takes us to residential neighborhoods crammed with high-rise apartment buildings. Here for the first time we notice something missing. There are no schools.

What happened to PS 132 and Woodrow Wilson High School and City College? Uptown, we are told, there is one lively academy for the wealthy and well-born, but education for the masses? Our guide snickers. "How ludicrous!"

As Rabbi Ken Spiro points out in his superb book, WorldPerfect education for all was an implausible notion in the pagan world (as in polytheistic societies today), where the literacy rate was generally 1/10 of 1%. Even ancient Rome, which needed a literate ruling class to administer its far-flung empire, boasted a literary rate of only 10-15%. Not only did Greece and Rome not deem it beneficial to educate the masses, but they viewed education as a potential danger to the stability of society.

The Torah innovated the idea of education for all. It specifically commanded parents to educate their children. [Deut. 6:7] In fact, a code of law as intricate as the Torah and as obligatory on all members of the society, inherently demanded study. If a Jew didn't know what all the commandments entailed, how could he fulfill them? Thus mass education was a Torah-mandated value throughout Jewish history, causing the medieval monk Peter Abelhard to write: "A Jew, however poor, even if he had ten sons, would put them all to letters, not for gain as the Christians do, but for understanding of God's law. And not only his sons, but his daughters."

As we continue our tour of New York City, we notice that we have not heard a single ambulance siren. When we ask, "Where are the hospitals?" we are met with a blank stare. "You must know what we mean," we persist, "the place where the sick are cared for and lives are saved."

A glint of understanding: "Oh, yes. We have a place which provides medical care… for those who can afford it, of course."

"And for the others?" we ask, appalled. "You can't just let them die."

"Why not?" is the puzzled retort.

No society before Torah or without Torah attributed intrinsic value to human life. It follows that for the government or society to spend its resources to heal or preserve life -- and to feel such urgency to save life that they would outfit ambulances -- would be considered a nonsensical enterprise. The right to life, which the American Declaration of Independence considered "self-evident," was not evident to any society in the world before or after Sinai, except where the Torah's influence penetrated.

On the contrary, infanticide of undesirable babies (such as girls and those with even minor disabilities) was universally practiced, and endorsed by such "enlightened" thinkers as Aristotle. Killing for entertainment was the most popular amusement in ancient Rome, where 50,000 people would crowd into the Coliseum to watch convicted criminals (for capital crimes such as professing Christianity), slaves, and POWs fed to the lions and gladiators fight to the death. In between these spectacular killings, lest the crowd get bored, routine executions by burning, beheading, and skinning people alive were offered for amusement during intermission.

Into a world where killing for convenience or sport was the universal norm, the Torah introduced the concept of the sacredness of life. "Do not murder," the sixth of the Ten Commandments revealed at Sinai, was not simply ethical pragmatism as it was in other ancient law codes, whose goal was to protect not the individual, but rather the stability of society. The Torah asserted that all human beings -- including infants, slaves, and convicted criminals -- were holy because they were created in the image of God. As the Talmud proclaimed: "He who saves one life is as if he had saved the whole world." The value of the individual -- and therefore his or her life -- is a Torah innovation.

In India in 1981, I knew a couple whose 22-year-old son had been injured in a traffic accident while riding his motor scooter through the streets of Calcutta. The young man lay on the crowded thoroughfare for seven hours, until he bled to death. This is a society where Torah has not penetrated.

Our tour of Manhattan-sans-Torah takes us to a small but stately building. We're informed that this is the courthouse for the entire city. "How can such a small courthouse serve millions of people?" we ask, perplexed.

"Millions of people?" is the astonished reply. "Only a few thousand people -- the elite -- have the right to bring lawsuits."

When the Torah laid down the principle of equal justice before the law, the rest of the world must have laughed. "You shall not commit a perversion of justice; you shall not favor the poor and you shall not honor the mighty" [Lev. 19:15] would have been regarded as outlandish had not God commanded it. According to the Torah, even a king is not above the law and even a slave is not below it. Jewish courts do -- and always have -- heard cases initiated by wronged workers, women, and foreigners. By contrast, ancient Athens, the so-called "cradle of democracy," extended full legal rights to only a few thousand men who owned land, leaving its other hundreds of thousands of residents (including women, artisans, peasants, and slaves) with no recourse to the law.

In the corridor of the courthouse, we notice something curious on the wall. It is a conglomeration of twelve lines of numbers. "This is a calendar," our guide explains. "It marks off the days, months, and years."

"What about the weeks?" we ask.

"What are weeks?" our guide inquires quizzically.

The division of time into seven-day units punctuated by the Sabbath, a day of rest, is an invention of the Torah. It corresponds to no natural cycle. Completely counter-productive of material goals, the Sabbath addresses the unique spiritual need for reconnection and re-creation. Even those denizens of the Western world for whom "the weekend" means not spiritual refreshment but shopping at the mall must appreciate the Torah's gift of one day off in seven.

Having lived in India, a society where every day resembles every other (except for the Sunday closing of schools and government offices, imposed by the British colonizers), I have seen how human beings are eroded by the tedium of a 365-day year of unremitting work. Now, in the small courthouse, I look around and notice the same exhausted expressions.

We head over to First Avenue and 46th Street only to discover that the familiar landmark of the United Nations headquarters is absent. Bewildered, we ask: "Isn't there some international body whose purpose, at least in principle, is to settle disputes between nations in a peaceful manner, without resort to war?"

Our guide is confused. "What would be the point of that? War is the noblest endeavor of man. War spawns heroes -- mighty warriors whose prowess vanquishes the enemy. And how else will a nation expand its borders and increase its power without the glorious enterprise of war?"

We despair of a meeting of minds, and begin to search for a curved wall where the antithetical vision of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah is emblazoned: "And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, nations shall not lift up sword against nations. Neither shall they learn war anymore."

We search in vain. There is no inscription, no wall, not even the ideal of peace in this world in which the Torah was never given.

We walk north, past the fashionable uptown, into a low-income neighborhood, and here the most conspicuous difference grips us. The streets are lined with unfortunates -- blind people, crippled people, starving children. They reach out their hands and plead with us for help. It reminds me of the cities of India. "Why are these people on the street?" we demand. "Where are the orphanages? The social service agencies? The institutions for the blind and the deaf? The soup kitchens? The rehabilitation centers for the handicapped?"

"What are you suggesting?" comes the outraged response. "There's nothing like that here, and why should there be? We didn't hurt these people. It's not our fault if they're hungry or handicapped. We bear no responsibility to help them."

As Ken Spiro points out in WorldPerfect, into a world where numerous law codes prohibited murder, theft, and various anti-social behaviors, the Torah burst into the scene with a completely novel concept: the obligation to proactively do good. "Love your neighbor as yourself," [Lev. 19:18] and "Do not stand by your neighbor's blood," [Lev. 19:16] charged humankind with social responsibility, an idea that sans-Torah societies never dreamed of.

The Torah, which Thomas Huxley called, "the Magna Carta of the poor and of the oppressed," drove this point home with a multitude of specific commandments aimed at providing aid to the impoverished, the widow, the orphan, and the alien. The Torah obligated human beings to take responsibility for the welfare of people outside their own clans and beyond the precincts of their own homes, not because it was salubrious for the body politic, but because a just and loving God demanded compassion from all His children for all His children. This planet has never known a more original idea.

Finish reading here.
No where in the Torah does it command a government to provide services for the people. In fact, the Torah imposes these very commandments to do.  Thus in Jewish families you will see Tzedakah boxes in the home (My family always placed ours in the kitchen.).  Every family gives. The rich to the poor, the poor to the poorer, even the poorest person will find a coin to give to another.  All this giving without the need to get a tax deduction.

Without G-d's gift to the Jews of the Torah, this world would be a poorer place to live in.  Our communities would be worse off with rampant disease, illness, death, crime and ignorance.

G-d's gift to Israel. Israel's gift to the world!

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