Excerpts from a sermon given at Friday Sabbath by Rabbi Stephen Weisman at Temple Solel in Bowie, Md..
In the Torah this week we begin to read, “These are the rules that you shall set before them” [Exodus 21:1]. By the context, we know that these are God’s words, given to Moses, who will report these mitzvot (good deeds) back to the people.
Rather than look at any specific aspects of these rules tonight, let’s focus on the underlying morals and ethics of the entire collection. When we do, it is clear we are dealing with a system most concerned about fair and equitable treatment for all, before God.
When Moses received the Ten Commandments, we saw in Torah last week, there was a wordplay on the word “holy.” We learned that the essence of holiness is separation. But in these mitzvots, holiness is only recognized when we come together in our interactions with others, with God, and with the world around us. Therefore, these torts, or laws, are essential in establishing a framework which allows us to become holy.
What has happened since September 11 must be measured by the sense of consistency, appropriateness and fairness that are hallmarks of the tort system of Torah. The good news, first, is that the propaganda machines that blamed Jews for the World Trade Tower tragedy was taken only as slander, as a canard.
The announcement by the [Immigration and Naturalization Service] that it will beef up detention of those illegally in America, starting with Arabs, is also a good step. We must start somewhere. Still, I would much rather make mistakes in the direction of leniency [toward illegals], for this is my sense of k’dushah, the protection of the rights of all. If the INS does tighten up across the board, it will be a good thing and can help avoid future racial profiling, which is bad, an unholy separation rather than a holy one.
Our president has mostly struck the right notes in response to the attack. But in our search for fairness we must focus on his use of the word “war.” It has been used to describe our response to the attack. It was modified to be war “not in the traditional sense” because we could not declare it on any given country. But I suspect there was more to this choice of language than met the eye.
We Americans were told, honestly and accurately, that we were fighting a “war against terrorism.” We supported the effort. But then came a turning point. With the capture of some of our enemies came the responsibility to care for them. And this brings up the Geneva Conventions, which are the modern equivalent of the Torah portion on fairness.
The question has shifted from, “How do we apply the Conventions to our Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners of war?” to “Should we apply them?” The government that “went to war” is now telling us that some prisoners of war are rather “accused criminals” awaiting trial. Why did it take a month to decide whether these ethical commitments of the Conventions apply? Why, when the decision came yesterday, did we distinguish between Taliban and al Qaeda?
So we give rights to the incidental prisoners, or Taliban, but none to the real objects of our war efforts, al Qaeda. Our government is doing exactly what Israel has done for years, and we Reform Jews have been first and loudest to take the moral high ground and condemn Israel for this. Our most damning criticism of the U.S. policy toward prisoners is the Torah’s call for fairness. The government is attempting to justify “eye for an eye” treatment, and from the fundamentalist reading of that. We are terrorizing them by denying basic human rights.
I don’t care what we call the prisoners because all of them are entitled to protections equivalent to the Conventions. If we are fighting a moral war, shouldn’t we be modeling the morality we are fighting for? Our U.S. policy here is not the kodesh (blessing) of the Torah, where morality is, and must be, absolute.
Next week: A sermon by Rear Adm. Barry C. Black, chief of Navy chaplains.