This week’s parsha is a troubling one. It starts out optimistic, with the wonderful promise from God that if we faithfully observe God’s commandments, we will be rewarded. It will rain; our fields shall yield harvest; peace will come to the land; our enemies shall fall by the sword. All good stuff. But then our parsha takes a turn, and talks about all the horrible things that will happen to us if we do not observe all of the commandments: Our foes shall dominate us; God will make our “skies like iron,” and our “earth like copper;” our cattle will be wiped out; our roads shall be deserted. We will be scattered among the nations, and our land will be so desolate that even our enemies will be appalled by it.
Even from a modern perspective, these threats are frightening. One can only imagine that during the time of the parsh’a writing, it was pretty scary stuff for the average Israelite to hear. The Torah goes into great detail as to how you will be destroyed and decimated, left with nothing, if you dare break but ONE of the commandments set forth by God. Parsha’s like this one are what give the meaning to the phrase, “living with a fear of God.”
And just how was the “fear of God” put into the average Israelite? Well, history has taught us that the average Israelite in the Near East could not read the Torah because the Torah was, and is still, written in Hebrew. Hebrew was an elitist language of the “literati;” only the rich and highly educated knew it. Israelites, as most Jews do today, spoke the vernacular of the land they lived in: Aramaic or Greek. So how did the average Israelite even hear about the important lessons found in Leviticus? Torah readings took place on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, which were market days in the Near East, meaning that it was the day when everyone went out shopping, so crowds were present. A leader or priest of some kind would stand on his platform and read the Torah in Hebrew, then translate it so that the masses could understand it.
We actually see remnants of this age old practice today. Most of us, for example, have probably had the uncomfortable experience of walking down the street and seeing people standing on their soapboxes crying out that we are to be damned and going to hell, or that we can be saved. Yes, that practice is a descendent of how our Torah was preached years and years ago by the educated elite. But notice the key difference in what I just said. Those who preached the Torah in ancient times were the educated elite. When they weren’t standing in the marketplace reading Torah, they in classrooms, at universities, and taught the world. And that is because for the Jewish people throughout history, education and intellectualism were praised. As a people, we strived to better ourselves, to gain insight into the world, and to work hard to use that knowledge for good so that we could make this world a better place. And Jews were not alone in this endeavor. We can thank our Muslim brethren, for example, for preserving Greek and Roman manuscripts. During the middle ages, for example, when Christianity sought to throw the world into darkness, it was Islam in the Middle East that saved the manuscripts of Aristotle and Plato. Indeed, people of all cultures and backgrounds worked hard to pursue scientific discovery, helping us to uncover the mysteries of nature, space, and humanity.
And because of their intellectual pursuits, in 2016 we know that our moral actions, good or bad, do not decide whether or not it rains. Rather, the air in our atmosphere contains water vapor, and that air can only climb to a certain saturation, at which point, the water vapor begins to condense, and rain falls. Clouds in the sky are not signs of an unhappy god, but rather divided between stratiform and cumuliform, which are a single layer or multiple layers of condensed water vapor floating in our atmosphere. We also know that despite what Genesis says, the world was not created 6,000 years ago, but rather it has been floating in space for 4.5 Billion years. And this we know thanks to the evidence found in radiometric age dating and meteorite materials. We also know that Adam did not name the animals, nor did Cain and Abel ride dinosaurs to work. Thanks to the research on genetic mutations and natural selection, we know that evolution occurred and continues to occur. We know these things because of the dedicated men and women who spend years in schooling, training, and in research, going to the ends of the earth to discover incredible knowledge that can be passed down to the students of the world.
And yet, within the last decade, there has been a trend within America that has us moving in the opposite direction. There is today a substantial following of what we would call “anti-intellectualism:” the rejection of critical thinking, the rejection of science, and a move towards religious fundamentalism. If you Google the phrase, “Fossil prove evolution,” instead of Darwin’s theories and scientific research coming up as the first entries, the very first result on Google was an article by Scientific American call “The Fossil Fallacy.” With amazement, we watch a United States Congressman, during a speech at a Baptist Church, state that evolution and the big bang theory are “lies straight from the pit of hell.” Instead of our government working diligently to correct the horrible effects fossil fuels and pollution have on climate change, we see a United States Senator throw a snowball on the Senate floor “proving” that climate change is a hoax.
And it’s not just science that suffers. Racism, antisemitism, and Islamaphobia are all on the rise, with fear replacing critical thinking. Gun ownership is on the rise, with new government conspiracy theories coming through the internet every day, with the result being only more gun deaths (an average of 36 a day). Healthy nationalism has been replaced by hyper-patriotism, wherein people think that America, specifically White America, is far superior to the rest of the world.
Of course, the numbers show us where the United States really stands. America ranked 16th in the world for quality of life quality of life, 12th in the world for university degrees, and 94th on the Global Peace Index (right next to Saudi Arabia and Peru). But don’t worry, we have high numbers elsewhere. The US proudly ranks #1 in incarceration rates, and #1 in teen pregnancy in the industrialized world. Other numbers are just as upsetting. Eighteen percent of Americans still believe that the sun revolves around the earth, 42 percent of Americans still believe God created human beings in their present form less than 10,000 years ago, and a 2008 University of Texas study found that 25 percent of public school biology teachers believe that humans and dinosaurs inhabited the earth simultaneously.
In other words, anti-intellectualism is becoming the louder voice here in America. The man or woman on the street shouting from her soapbox now also occupies a seat in congress. He or she is a teacher, a government official, a religious leader. Where it was once okay to ignore these people, cringing at their uneducated nonsense, we must now stop and recognize that far too many people are actually listening. And believing.
As Jews, we are charged with being “Or l’goyim,” a light to the nations. It is a charge we take seriously. Though we represent only 0.02 percent of the world’s population, and 2 percent of America’s population, we have been given the task to educate. I often state that Jews count themselves first and foremost as scholars. Without even counting the rabbinic texts of the Mishnah, Talmud, Tosefta, Responsa, there are thousands of books by Jews writing on history, philosophy, theology, numerology, astrology, science, and agriculture. Jews have been awarded 25 percent of all Nobel Prizes, and 28 percent of those in the scientific research fields. Intellectual pursuit is in our blood. Our own intellectual pursuit, however, is no longer enough. This country is turning, and fundamentalism is winning. As Jews, as “Or l’goyim” we must be the louder voice. We must be the voice of reason, of critical thinking, of logic, of science, pursuing peace through literature, science, and humanities. We have come too far to call the rising temperatures on our planet “God’s will,” or the deaths by gun violence, “biblical karma.” As Jews, we know what happens when anti-intellectualism wins. First they come for the professors and teachers, then the artists and writers, and then who qualifies as the enemies of the state becomes ambiguous, and all are in danger.
The words of our parsha this week do teach us a lesson, but not the one it was meant to. It teaches us the gap between the understanding in biblical times and the times today, and how we must accept that, and realize the danger in moving backward. Bechukotai does teach us about fear but not the fear of God. It teaches us the fear of humanity. It is us, not God, who will make the “skies like iron,” and our “earth like copper.” Our cattle will be wiped out, and our roads shall be deserted by our own actions, not God’s will. Let us remember as faithful Jews, as believers in God, and in the world to come, the words of a fellow scientist, Galileo Galilei, who stated: “I do not feel obligated to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”
Let us all speak up, and speak loudly. And may this, be God’s will.