Drawing Together & Coming Apart

posted on July 21, 2017
Haftarah Reading

Religion has the capacity to draw us together, and religion has the equal capacity to split us apart.

Religion's critics would do well to acknowledge the benefits that spiritual community has brought to countless lives, the ways that sacred wisdom has inspired people over millennia to acts of goodness and neighborly kindness. Religion's adherents should likewise recognize that the systems that they hold dear have also been responsible tremendous grief, that religion has divided families and nations just as it has brought them together.

I believe an honest assessment yields the conclusion that religion, like humanity itself, is neither essentially good nor bad, but rather is locked in an ongoing struggle between its better angels and its less savory tendencies.

One such example of this pervasive struggle emerges out of Parshat Ki Tetze, which contains a commandment forbidding certain peoples, the Moabite and the Ammonites, who are considered to be distant kin to the Israelites, from ever being granted admittance into the Jewish community. We read:

"No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of Adonai; none of their descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted… You shall never concern yourself with their welfare or benefit as long as you live." (Deut 23: 4-7).

Here the Torah's rhetoric seems unnecessarily emphatic, and even cruel: Not only are these peoples to be kept out of our communal tent, their polluted blood defiles their children and their children's children for ten generations forward. Not only are they to be excluded from our community, they are unworthy of even the meagerest human sympathy or concern! Deuteronomy here seems to suggest that the cost of our communal solidarity is our fierce and total rejection of others who are unlike us.

Yet, only a few centuries later, this prohibition will be ignored in one of Judaism's greatest stories. Ruth is a Moabite, one of those who are categorically forbidden to enter our community. Yet, she becomes the paradigmatic convert, choosing to stay with her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi after the death of her husband. With these famous words – "Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God" (Ruth 1:16) – she binds her destiny with that of the Jewish People in outright defiance of the Torah's express prohibition. What's more, Ruth goes on to marry another Jewish man, Boaz, and with him inaugurate the line that will lead to King David and through him, our Tradition suggests, the Messiah.

The Talmud attempts to rectify this conflict by suggesting that the original prohibition only applied to Ammonite and Moabite men, not women (Yevamot 77a). This seems, however, to be a highly unlikely interpretation. Deuteronomy, in multiple places, expresses grave concerns about the risks posed by "foreign women" who might lead Israelite men astray. Given that context, there is simply no reason to assume that the Torah would specifically limit its prohibition to Moabite and Ammonite men. The conflict between Deuteronomy and Ruth is real and cannot be neatly resolved.

The Bible does not speak with one voice; instead, our sacred canon is rife with tensions between competing ideologies. Here we encounter a struggle between those that would exclude certain groups, not only from our community, but from our circle of care and concern, and those that say that it is precisely through their inclusion that the messianic redemption is made possible. As the debate is left unresolved in our texts, the conversation continues to our own day: Will religion draw us closer together, or will it serve as a wedge that keeps us apart?