Send in the clowns
ColumnKeeping the Faith

Send in the clowns

“He’s a clown,” read the email from one of my detractors sent to another that I was copied on, because “he” twists “his” sources to support “his leftist views.”

At first, I thought I was the “he” who twists Torah, broadly writ, to support my “leftist views.”

Then, however, I wondered whether the “clown” referred to was the prophet Isaiah, whose “leftist” views I quoted in my August 5 column. In Isaiah 58, the prophet claims to quote God as saying that fasting on Yom Kippur is meaningless unless we feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, relieve the plight of the wretched, and so forth.

In Chapter 1, Isaiah claims to quote God as saying that we must “cease doing evil. Learn to do good, seek justice. Make the oppressed happy, defend the orphan, argue the widow’s cause….”

So maybe, I thought, the “clown” was Isaiah. (I believe Isaiah and the other prophets I cite here were quoting God. I say that they claim to do so because these are all “leftist views” and, I assume, the email’s author believes our prophets were making up these quotes to suit their progressive agendas.)

Then I had second (third?) thoughts. There are many candidates for the derogatory clown title to be found in my columns. Perhaps the email’s author had someone else in mind.

When I write about environmental issues, for example, I cite a verse that appears in this week’s Torah reading, Shofetim. It forbids us from chopping down a food-bearing tree. (See Deuteronomy 20:19-20.) This commandment forms the basis for an entire body of environmental and ecological Torah law known as Bal Tashchit, “do not destroy.” As the late 19th century’s Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains it, this verse is a stand-in for general wastefulness. It represents an all-encompassing warning against “capriciously destroying anything.” (See his commentary to Deuteronomy 20:20.)

One of our Sages of Blessed Memory, Rav Zutra, said that this commandment prohibits us from burning more fuel of any kind than we need. (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Shabbat 67b.)

Another sage, Rabbi Elazar, said Bal Tashchit even prohibits a mourner from tearing a piece of clothing beyond repair. (See BT Bava Kamma 91b.) Maimonides, the Rambam, goes even further. After noting that “a person should not be trained to be destructive,” he rules that it violates Bal Tashchit for mourners to bury their dead in usable clothing. Rather, that clothing should be used to “clothe the naked,” as Isaiah would put it. (See Rambam’s Mishnah Torah, The Laws of Mourning 14.24.)

That brings us to the whole question of recycling. A 13th century rabbi, Aharon Halevi of Barcelona, wrote in his Sefer Ha-Chinuch (The Book of Education) that “it is the way of the pious and they who have good deeds” to “not even destroy a grain of mustard….If it is possible to save anything that is being spoiled, the pious spare no effort to do so.”

A midrash—Kohelet Rabbah 7:13:1—has God taking the First Human “around all the trees” of the garden. God then said to the human: “Be careful not to ruin or destroy My world, for if you ruin it, there is no one after you who can repair it.”

Then there are the many sources I cite in arguing for more effective laws regulating guns and gun safety. Our Sages chose Deuteronomy 4:9 as the verse epitomizing the Torah’s overarching concern for the sanctity of life: “Take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously.”

As Rabbi Joseph Karo explained in his authoritative Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, this verse “is a positive commandment” to remove—and destroy!—anything that poses a possible danger to life. (See the Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 427:8.)

I also cite the Torah’s Law of the Parapet (a protective device placed around the edges of a roof). Deuteronomy 22:8 tell us that when we build a new house, we must install a parapet to prevent anyone or anything from falling off and injuring someone. As one of our most revered mid-second century C.E. Sages, Rabbi Natan, explained, this forms the basis for a whole body of Torah law prohibiting us from keeping any kind of potential hazard in our homes, including, he says, a broken ladder. (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Bava Kamma 15b. Also see BT Ketubot 41b.)

No authority before or since disagrees with this. The Rambam, for example, notes that anything “that is a danger to life must be removed as a matter of positive duty and extremely necessary caution.” (See Rambam’s Mishnah Torah, the Laws of the Murderer and the Preservation of Life 11:4-5.)

The mid-13th century commentator Rabbi Chizkiyah ben Manoah, the Chizkuni, echoes this (see his commentary on that verse), as does Rabbi Hirsch in his commentary.

Perhaps one of these authorities is the leftist Torah-twisting clown.

I also have written several times about the wrong-headed notion that Torah law is all about ritual and nothing else, a view our prophets strongly condemned—Isaiah, for example, as noted above. Others do, as well. Says the prophet Jeremiah:

“Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Mend your ways and your actions….Do not put your trust in illusions,” meaning we must not delude ourselves into thinking that performing sacred rituals is all that matters. “No, to truly mend your ways and your actions, you must execute justice between one person and another; do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow; do not shed the blood of the innocent….Will you steal and murder and commit adultery and swear falsely…, and then come and stand before Me…? Do you consider this House that bears My name [the Temple] to be a den of thieves?” (See Jeremiah 7:2-11.)

Others of our prophets who proclaimed the emptiness of ritual if social justice is ignored includes the prophet Amos. Said he supposedly in God’s Name, “Spare Me the sound of your hymns….But let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream.” (See Amos 5:23-24.) Malachi, also supposedly quoting God, railed against those “who swear falsely, who cheat laborers of their rightful earnings, and who subvert [the cause of] the widow, orphan, and stranger.” (See Malachi 3:5.)

Then there is the prophet Micah: “God has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God.” (See Micah 6:8.)

What, then, is it that “the Lord requires of you”? The answer is to be found in “the Torah of My servant Moses, whom I charged at Horeb with laws and rules for all Israel.” (See Malachi 3:22.)

Many of us have been listening to Moses’ review of these “laws and rules for all Israel” in the Torah readings leading up to Rosh Hashanah—chapters 12 through 26 of the Book of Deuteronomy. These chapters represent the essence of what Moses says the Torah expects of us. This essence is actually summed up at the beginning of this week’s reading, Shofetim, by the doubling up of one not-so-simple word: tzedek. It is the Torah’s prime directive (assuming Moses did not make this up to support his leftist views). “Tzedek tzedek tirdof,” it says; “justice, justice shall you pursue.”

Tzedek is not easily defined. It means many things, including righteousness, justice, truth, purity, honesty, sincerity, kindness, virtue, and piety. In doubling up the word tzedek, Moses was saying that God’s vision is a world built on tzedek in all its meanings—a world built on righteousness, justice, truth, purity, honesty, sincerity, kindness, equity, virtue, and piety—truly “leftist concepts.”

God—or so “Moses’ Torah” claims—introduced this to us in revealing why our Father Abraham was chosen to be the founder of the Israelite nation. Said God, it was because Abraham would “instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing tzedakah and mishpat [by doing what is right and just]….” (See Genesis 18:19.)

As the late Rabbi Aharon Soloveichik explained, “Mishpat and tzedek both emanate from the doctrine of human rights…; the notion of rights [tzedek] comes first and the notion of duties [mishpat] second….A Jew should always identify with the cause of defending the aggrieved, whosoever the aggrieved may be, just as the concept of tzedek is to be applied uniformly to all humans regardless of race or creed.” (See his “Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind: Civil Rights and the Dignity of Man,” pages 64-67.)

If I am the clown referred to, clearly I am in good company. As for the “leftist views” I share with those whom I cited here and the many others sources I often cite, these views are very much among the matters we must include in taking that “cheshbon hanefesh,” that accounting of our souls, that is necessary for us—the email writer included—to do as we prepare for the High Holy Days.

Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is