“I might not know that much Torah,” a participant in a Jewish youth program once told Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, “but I certainly can’t believe that every issue in the world comes under the general heading of ‘Justice, justice, shall you pursue.’” Yet, Salkin writes, it is twisted hermeneutics of precisely this sort that have become commonplace in all denominations of American Judaism. According to this approach, nearly every standard policy prescription of the progressive left can be read into a handful of verses like the one cited above or the now-ubiquitous kabbalistic term tikkun olam (repair of the world):
The problem with this has less to do with what liberal Jews say about these matters than with how such Jews justify their positions. They tend to attach Jewish texts to the issues at hand, and to do so sloppily. . . . In citing Jewish texts to bolster political stances, liberal Jews too rarely unpack what these texts meant in their original context. More rarely still do they admit to stretching their original meanings. . . .
Take, for instance, the command to “love the stranger,” which appears multiple times in the Pentateuch:
Who was the biblical stranger (ger)? Quite simply, a non-Israelite who lived within a Jewish polity, i.e., the land of Israel. Jews had to provide for the welfare of the stranger, often an impoverished laborer or artisan, “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Let us . . . acknowledge that, as it stands, “loving the stranger” fails to offer the concrete policy prescriptions that we might want from it. That hasn’t stopped some from using the quote as a basis for [proposals regarding] immigration policy [in the U.S.]. . . . Moreover: two people might be positively disposed toward those who wish to become Americans while simultaneously disagreeing about what constitutes sensible policy on U.S. immigration at a given moment. The biblical text offers us very little guidance here, other than raising a lofty ethical standard. . . .
[I]t’s past time for us to admit that too often our political and social stances come first and are then followed by interpretations of Jewish texts that serve as retroactive justification. Today, American Jews find themselves in sociological, economic, and political environments that are wholly unlike those of the Jewish past. While we can draw on the past for inspiration, there are very few policy recommendations to be found there.
What would happen if we reversed the preferred order of the day? If we first approached the Jewish texts themselves, wandered into the rabbinic tradition and later commentaries, and then discerned what our social and political stances might be?