Shaya Cohen -


The Criticality of Finding Common Ground


Religious fundamentalists are often accused of seeking to force our morality on other people. There is, of course, much truth in this: belief that there is right and wrong, as instructed by G-d Almighty, does tend to make us think that we really should not tolerate murder or assault. The question often seems to be not whether or not we should use government force to compel others to adhere to our moral code (since the answer is clearly, at least to some extent, “Yes!”), but instead, where the line should be drawn.

Most people can agree, for example, that murder is wrong, and we can and should punish murderers, even though it means forcing our morality on others. But by the same token, most Americans would not favor using the government to punish those who blaspheme or commit adultery.

The G-d of the Old Testament, the Torah, is often caricatured as being concerned with strict justice and theocracy, but the text itself, in some very subtle ways, seems to not only tolerate those who have no interest in elevating themselves toward a relationship with G-d, but goes so far as to enjoin us to reach out and include a wide range of people within our gatherings and festivities.

Where do I see this? Three times in Deuteronomy:

But whenever you desire, you may slaughter and eat meat in any of your settlements, according to the blessing that your G-d has granted you. The unelevatable and the elevatable alike may partake of it, as of the ram and the deer. (Deut.12:15)

… you may slaughter any of the cattle or sheep that G-d gives you, as I have instructed you; and you may eat to your heart’s content in your settlements. Eat it, however, as the ram and the deer are eaten: the unelevatable may eat it together with the elevatable. (12:22)

But if [the animal] has a defect, lameness or blindness, any serious defect, you shall not sacrifice it to your G-d. Eat it in your settlements, the unelevatable among you no less than the elevatable, just like the ram and the deer. (15:22)

The gazelle (or deer or hart or similar) is a kosher animal who cannot be offered as a sacrifice, because it is not capable of connecting heaven and earth in that way. It represents the “unelevatable” – a person who has not chosen to grow holy relationships.

By contrast, the ram is the quintessential sacrifice – used first in the binding of Isaac. It embodies that profound connection between heaven and earth, man and G-d. And it thus represents people who are both capable and interested in growing holy relationships.

When the text says something three times, it is understood both as an emphasis and to describe three different facets of the same commandment (e.g. “you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” is repeated three times, and is the foundation for Jewish dietary laws separating milk from meat).

In this case, we can suggest that the wild (but still kosher) animal is a reflection of the three men who were excluded by our forefathers: Ishmael, Lot and Esau. All three were focused on nature, on the lively action of hunting and an obsession (in Lot’s case) with fertility. Though they could have, perhaps, been kept in the fold, they were instead excluded – arguably making their resentful descendants the enemies of the Jewish people through eternity.

And I think that Moses, in Deuteronomy, is telling us that, going forward, we are instead to always seek to include those who make different choices than we do, that we should always seek common ground even with those who do not share our interest in building holiness within ourselves, our families and our communities.

The repetition of the phrase three times might suggest that we are specifically meant to include those who acted as Ishmael, Lot, and Esau did. It does not mean that we follow their lead, but instead that we always try to find common ground, to include these potential outcasts.

There is another verse that leads us to a similar conclusion – and it is also connected to eating meat. Kosher land animals must chew their cud – but the Hebrew is “olah gerah” which means to “elevate the gerah.” We translate gerah as “cud,” but it is used first in the Torah when talking about the national census:

This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight—twenty gerahs to the shekel—a half-shekel as an offering to G-d. (Ex. 30:13)

This conversion seems to be entirely extraneous and irrelevant, unless we link it to the places it is used elsewhere: a kosher animal. The text seems to be suggesting that a kosher animal, an animal that we are allowed to ingest, is symbolically linked to a periodic unification of the entire people. Much like the “ram and the deer,” all Jews are to come together to celebrate G-d’s bounty, to find ways to show gratitude through sharing our blessings and publicly proclaiming them together, even though each person is different from the next.

So when we eat a kosher animal, we eat animals that “elevate the polis” – that find ways to elevate the ways in which we have things in common, if only that we eat meat together and join in the same census.

The tension between people who make different choices are inevitable, and there is no such thing as a happy medium. Society can – and should – use homeostatic systems to keep hunting for acceptable balance points between individual freedom and a functioning and healthy society. I think it is helpful to keep in mind that the Torah seems to command us to always seek to keep a civil society in which people can break bread with those who make very different choices.

If we loop this back to the original question, we see that the Torah does not stint on what should be correct. The ideal is still there, shining in the sky for all to see. But we must not exclude those who choose not to reach for the same ideals that inspire us. Instead, we look for opportunities to include them whenever and wherever we can.

Comments are welcome!

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