The Letter And The Spirit


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:35 p.m.
Torah: Leviticus 25:1-27:34
Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19-17:14
Havdalah: 8:39 p.m.

This week’s Torah reading teaches a number of beautiful ethical principles, urging that the Jewish people enshrine them as laws within their new society in Canaan: Reverse all land sales in the Jubilee Year; release debtors from their debts during the seventh year (shmitah); redeem a relative’s land so he can live on his family plot; do not charge interest when loaning money; do not oppress others by price gouging or underpaying; do not be cruel to servants, but liberate them in the seventh year.

A deeper look at these laws reveals two disturbing aspects: As is the nature of all law, theyhave well defined parameters that can be easily skirted. For instance, we can avoid the cancellation of debts through a rabbinic legal device, prosbul, and we are able to circumvent the prohibition of charging interest through another rabbinic instrument that turns personal loans into institutional loans not covered by the law.

Moreover, most of these halachic principles apply to only to relations between Jews and other Jews. There are no legal limits on charging interest to gentiles, working non-Jewish servants harshly, and no requirement to ever release gentile servants from their servitude. That is the letter of the law, over which there is no dispute.

Yet there are extralegal values that our Torah wants to instill. The rabbis of the Talmud transcended the narrow limits of the halacha forbidding us to charge interest only to Jews. In Makkot [24a] they praise King David for refusing to charge interest even to gentiles. When the prohibition of charging interest became a point of bitter polemic between Christians and Jews in the Middle Ages, the biblical commentator Rabbi David Kimchi countered Christian accusations by explaining that logically people should always be free to charge interest (there is nothing irrational or immoral about “money making money”), but the Torah aims at inculcating chesed (loving-kindness) in Jews. It obligates Jews to be generous toward other Jews and avoid exploiting their poverty. That is the legal requirement, but both the Talmud and Rabbi Kimchi teach that if any other person is kind to you — including a gentile — you should return the kindness by not charging him interest, as did King David.

Jewish tradition offers similar ethical guidance regarding the treatment of gentile servants. Maimonides, the greatest halachic authority in our history, taught that despite the halacha’s permission to treat gentile slaves harshly, compassion and wisdom dictate that Jews treat every human being with kindness and sensitivity. After all, announced Maimonides, insensitivity toward any person is a characteristic only of primitive idolators. It was inconceivable to Maimonides that a Jew influenced by Torah values could be cruel to another person created in God’s image.

These examples reveal the subtle methodology of the Torah. Its laws are not ends in themselves, but are designed to cultivate a virtuous moral personality, a sensitive person who extends the values underlying those laws to other venues. Without learning this lesson, someone can become “a scoundrel within the bounds of the Torah,” as Nachmanides put it in the Middle Ages. In the 20th century the great Orthodox authority Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik expressed it differently: “Halacha is the floor; Jewish ethics are the ceiling.”

It is a distortion of the Torah and Judaism to understand them as exclusively law. Christian polemicists tried to degrade the Torah by describing it as purely legalistic, while those characterizing Judaism as pan-halachic only denigrate it. To bring this message home, the rabbis decreed that we read the tender story of Ruth on Shavuot in a few weeks. Ruth was a chesed-filled, breathtakingly magnanimous personality. She had no obligation to dedicate her life selflessly to her mother-in-law Naomi, yet she did so. Only someone who transcends formal legal obligation and whose personality overflows with chesed could our tradition valorize as the ideal Jew.

The secret of studying this week’s Torah reading is understanding that it is really a nuanced blend of communal obligation and personal ethics, an interplay of legal requirement and transcendent moral aspiration, of defining the practical minimum and striving for the ennobling ethical maximum.

For example, what are we to make of shmitah? Unfortunately, it has been reduced to the agricultural, and yet the primary value is interpersonal and ethical, to release people saddled by debt. If so, we should consider novel ways to promote these values by creating new communal institutions that enable the poor to regain their dignity and rebuild their lives.

The Torah asks us to internalize the values embedded in its specific laws. When these values become part of our character and we apply them freely with justice and compassion, Leviticus promises us that our people will live in security, bounty and freedom.

Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn is American director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Israel, and the former editor of Meorot — A Forum of Modern Orthodox Discourse. He writes frequently on Jewish thought and ethics.