Bill Moyers sits down with Dr. Gerson Cohen and Rabbi Saul Berman to discuss how the Jewish people have managed to survive and thrive for over 3,000 years.
BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers, and in this special edition of Heritage I’ll be talking to two rabbis who add to our understanding of one of the world’s great religions and to one of history’s extraordinary stories.
BILL MOYERS: How is it that the Jews, a small fraction of the world’s population and living among many cultures in different lands, so often persecuted and oppressed, how is it the Jews have managed to survive for 3,000 years as a people? What has preserved them? What unites them? What does it mean to be a Jew? For answers we turn to the rabbi. Over the centuries the rabbi — scholar, teacher, judge, moral authority and religious leader — has been a central figure in the Jewish experience.
Rabbi Gerson Cohen is one of America’s most respected Jewish scholars. Since 1972 Dr. Cohen has been chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. We talked in the library of the Seminary in New York City.
[interviewing] Dr. Cohen, as you look back on Jewish history, what is it that survives from generation to generation? What is it that gives continuity to these people of so much time and history?
GERSON COHEN: Well, I think the Jews have always carried with them since antiquity several basic characteristics and ideas that have given their history content. They had a sense of peoplehood from ancient times. What is distinguishing for the people of Israel, in terms of the ancient world where they were shaped and molded, is the fact that a covenant was not only with a prophet, it was with the whole people. The 24th chapter of Exodus describes the whole people of Israel entering the covenant. And ever since that time, one can say that the Jews have been a people who have borne a sense of history.
They were a people, we say elected, but selected, chosen by God for a certain way of life. And they were measured by their prophets, by their rabbis, by their teachers in each generation, by the extent to which they lived or failed to live up to the mandates of that covenant. They were forever measuring themselves and what they had achieved and what the promise was. They looked forward and that carried over in history. They looked forward to an ultimate redemption, and that gave them a sense of future.
BILL MOYERS: And this was true no matter where they were scattered, from Mesopotamia to Rome, to —
GERSON COHEN: Wherever they were scattered, no, that’s right. Everywhere. But there was another phenomenon that I think is really vital. Ever since the book of Deuteronomy, in chapter six, which enjoined upon the people of Israel to rehearse diligently these words to their children, learning, studying has been a religious act. And every word of study, or particularly every word that is recorded, becomes part of a sacred history. And the Jews are forever studying what their parents, grandparents and ancestors have written down as their product of their insight, into scripture and into the interpretation of scripture. So that you can say that the Jews are a people who bear a literature that records the unfolding insights or understandings, or their perceptions of what the divine mandate is.
BILL MOYERS: Jews seem always to be both studying and-and observing and chronicling and interpreting their history, but they also seem to be often in conflict with their history, don’t they? It seems to set up a dialectic between the past and present that is sometimes troubling, particularly in the modem world.
GERSON COHEN: I suppose there is that conflict between past and present, particularly in any group that looks back. I think that’s true in America as well. We look back to our founding fathers and we-from that we rationalize before the Supreme Court that this is what the Constitution originally meant. We developed that way and there’s a sense of being anchored and rooted in the original principles that, nevertheless, are open to development. You see, that’s the beauty, I would say, of Judaism-and America. We don’t really change, we develop, we unfold. And that’s a very important kind of, I would say, fiction that we cultivate in our lives, because what it enables us to do is cultivate the notion of continuity, it gives us roots, and it gives us, I would say, a validation. Since after all, it’s the roots that validate us.
BILL MOYERS: What did these laws — what did the Bible do for the Jews in-in their scattering, validate us in their exile?
BILL MOYERS: One of the deepest roots of the Jewish people is a set of books — the first five books of the Bible. The Jews call this body of scripture the Torah. According to tradition, the Torah was revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai, and contains not only the Ten Commandments and stories familiar to all of us, but the body of law detailing the covenant between God and the people of Israel. Over the centuries, interpretations of the law were passed on orally from generation to generation, refined and applied according to time and place.
Around the year 200 of the Common Era, these orally transmitted laws and religious rulings were condensed and compiled into a work called the Mishnah. It became the new basis for future interpretation and commentary by succeeding generations of rabbis, and forms the core of another deep root of the Jewish faith, the Talmud. Over the next four centuries, the law was discussed and debated by rabbis of different times and places in the pages of the Talmud in a continuous effort to define the principles of Judaism. The Talmud has been open for reinterpretation and elaboration over the centuries even today students of Judaic law tum to its pages for illumination of present-day problems.
[interviewing] Tell me about the laws, the Torah. What does that represent to Jews, in their history?
GERSON COHEN: Ever since Hellenistic times, Jews translated it by a word that signified law. In Greek they called it nomos. But actually, Torah, Torah means teaching and — the Torah begins with history, how God created the world. It’s a story. The generations of man, who begat whom. The story of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the 12 tribes. Of the Exodus. Then the story of the revelation and the content of the revelation.
So, ever since that time, I would say Judaism has had a kind of blend of the story of the past and the teachings that were given in any particular generation. The Jews have never ceased writing history, but there’s a difference between the history they wrote and the critical history to which we are accustomed. They were not really interested in history for its own sake. They were interested in history as a record, or as a vehicle for transmitting God’s will and whatever insights people developed.
BILL MOYERS: What about the Talmud? How would you describe the Talmud to a stranger from another world who knew nothing about Jewish history?
GERSON COHEN: Well. I’d try to say this, the Talmud is a vast work of interpretation that contains law, story, sermon, personal memories and biographies, all in connection, and it is, let’s say, a compendium or repository of what the Jews considered a normative way of life. There are many instances in the Talmud of things the Jews rejected. They’re exempla of things to be avoided. But the Talmud became a textbook, as it were, of the Jewish-of the desirable Jewish way of lie.
BILL MOYERS: Does it have the same sense of sanctity that the Bible does?
GERSON COHEN: Absolutely not. The Bible alone may be-to use the Hebrew word, only the Bible may be — we use the word read, it means chanted. The Talmud is a book that contains sacred material, but it is not to be chanted.
BILL MOYERS: It requires of each Jew that he strive as best he can to apply it to his life. How does one do that?
GERSON COHEN: Well, let’s say how the Talmud begins — with a question. From what time does — is it-is the Jew enjoined to recite the schmah, which is the passage in the Pentateuch which begins, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is unique.” That’s to be recited morning and evening. When in the morning? When in the evening? What you get is a kind of discussion of when it’s to be recited, how it’s to be recited.
Let’s take a different question, totally different. Someone leaves a stumbling block in a public place and someone walks over it and gets hurt. Who is responsible? There is civil law. The Talmud is a compendium of religious law, civil law, liturgical law. There is no difference in the classical Jewish mentality between the source of any law, whether it’s civil, familial, family life, marriage, divorce, the education of children, and business law. All of them are rooted in the same revelation that was given to Moses.
GERSON COHEN: It gave them, first of all, a common vocabulary and common standards of right and wrong. They knew what was forbidden. They had a calendar in common wherever they went, so that, for example, everybody knows that a week is seven days but that’s not historically-that’s a Jewish invention, or an Israelite invention. The Lord rested from his creation on the seventh day. No other ancient people had that notion of having a seven-day week. That’s one of the deposits of Hebrew monotheism to the world at large.
BILL MOYERS: What were some of the other commonly accepted practices today that grew up out of the Jewish experience?
GERSON COHEN: First of all, the mandate of charity to the poor, that you may not neglect any suffering that’s before your eyes. Let me take one example that made a deep impression upon me as a child studying the Pentateuch at home. If you see your neighbor’s horse, or donkey or beast of burden lying collapsed in the street as it were, under a burden, the Bible says you may not ignore it, you may not turn away. You must help that beast and your neighbor, the owner of the beast, you must help them in their difficulties. Now the prophets rail and rant against people who tum their eyes away from evil in society. You may not ignore it. And this sense of conscience, I think, this social conscience which I like to believe is so much of our country, is also a legacy-of-the Jews.
BILL MOYERS: What was it the great teacher Hillel said when asked, what does it mean to be Jewish? And he said, “That which is — ”
GERSON COHEN: What is hateful unto you, do not do unto your neighbor. He put it that way. In other words, he — he put it in Aramaic form, which is “love thy neighbor as thyself.” What is — a man said to him, “I would like to convert to Judaism, provided you can teach me the whole Torah during the time that I can stand on one leg.” And Hillel said to him, “I will tell you what the whole Torah is — ” by the way, I have .to finish that sentence, because it’s vital — “What is hateful to you do not do unto your neighbor.î That is the Torah. The rest is commentary, now go and study it. People forget that-that the last part of the mandate is equally important as the first.
Now to convert to Judaism means to become a member of the Jewish people and to become an equal citizen. We have a very lovely letter from Maimonides to a man who had converted to Judaism. He had fled from Normandy and he went to the synagogue and recited aloud the blessing of God, “The Lord God, and God of our fathers, ” and people said to him, “You cannot say ‘God of our fathers’ because your fathers, your ancestors were not Jewish.” And Maimonides wrote back a hot letter: “You are at least as entitled to say ‘my God and God of our fathers,’ because once you have become a member of the Jewish people, all the fathers of Judaism are your fathers as well.” Being a member of the, let me say F.F.J. — I knew it as F.F.V., the first families of Virginia. You cannot be one of the first families of Judaism and say my ancestry is better than yours. All are equal in the sight of God and all are equal in the synagogue.
BILL MOYERS: I have long thought that we owed to Judaism this original nurturing of the democratic impulse, this equality.
GERSON COHEN: Equality before the law, equality of responsibility, and the opportunity to rise. There are very few rabbinic dynasties that we had, actually. There were some-well, even in Babylonia, they were not members of the families. There were-we know today they were all the — the heads of the academies of Babylonia came largely from eight or nine families, but the fact of the matter is, when you go to the rabbinic of Spain, Franco-Germany, Eastern Europe — I find it a marvelous phenomenon, that in 1802, a Jew who had made a fortune selling lumber decided to give up his business and establish the first national yeshiva-first national, what would I say was a Jewish university. And he created a new curriculum and a new style and a new norm for study. By the way, since then, of course, these yeshivot or academies mushroomed all over the place. Illiteracy, lack of learning, was considered a disease, a fault, an affliction, and one had to study. That’s a religious mandate, to study and to know as far as possible. So that wherever they went teaching, the school, the schoolhouse, bet hamidrash, became as important as the synagogue — in fact, more important in many ways.
BILL MOYERS: You think that accounted for the vitality of the community in exile?
GERSON COHEN: Oh, unquestionably. The vitality of the community came from a sense of election, from a sense of knowledge. The insistence of the rabbis that there was nothing magical in these words. It was a question of conquest of the knowledge and applying it to one’s life.
BILL MOYERS: What a wonderful marriage of the idea of the spirit and the idea of the mind.
GERSON COHEN: Oh, yes. Of learning as well as of doing. Remember, a Jew must have children. A Jew must engage in a productive occupation so that-God entrusted the world to us not to be gods, but to be his servants there and to keep building on the world. By the way, there’s a wonderful Hebrew phrase which has so many different overtones. It means the way, the Hebrew word is “the way of the world,” derech eretz. It means, first of all, having a family. It means making a living. It means civility. If one is not civil, one does not have the way of the world. And finally, it means death. So that-the way of the world is to encompass the totality of existence from birth to death. And it is the mandate of the Jew to live and to die in a way that reflects an awareness of the divine command.
BILL MOYERS: Remember that-what was it Ezekiel said? “Thus sayeth the Lord God, although I have removed them far off among the nations, yet have I been to them as a little sanctuary in the countries where they come.” I love that, “little sanctuary.”
GERSON COHEN: Yes. Now let me take that little phrase, a little sanctuary. In Hebrew it came to mean a synagogue and a house of study. We have no temple for sacrifice, but we carry the temple wherever we go with the Torah, with the scroll of the Torah. And the Torah itself is not enough; it’s the commentary that really counts. So while we chant the Torah in the synagogue, it’s the study of the literature that grew out of it that becomes mandatory.
BILL MOYERS: How did it happen that the synagogue, as you’ve written before, did more than any other Jewish institution to assure the continuity of Jewish religious life? It must have become-it must have become many things.
GERSON COHEN: Yes, it-in the first place, it gives two basic things in life, a calendar and a vocabulary. Remember, the synagogue is forever being oriented by time, The morning, the evening. What is morning, what is evening? Each part of the day and each day of the year has its mandate. Now to do that there was a vocabulary. Wherever the Jews came they spoke the vernacular, but they carried with them a classic vocabulary. And one of the interesting things is, the Jews always learned to write their letters in Hebrew. And while they couldn’t-you know, they didn’t speak Hebrew, we don’t think, though today people are beginning to suggest that even in the Middle Ages there were pockets of people who spoke Hebrew. Hebrew as a spoken tongue is a modem phenomenon, but the fact that Jews could revive it as a spoken language was a consequence of the fact that every Jew was taught to write-read and write Hebrew fluently. And wherever they went they carried their books with them. And the books were of so many facets, law, history, philosophy, poetry — Jews were forever making up new liturgical poetry, some of it good, some of it not so good.
BILL MOYERS: But most Jews in those days couldn’t have their own libraries like this, so there had to be a set of books for a community, and what did they do? Come to the synagogue for the oral interpretation?
GERSON COHEN: Yes, they would have one or two who were masters. But there’s a-in 1242, the Talmud was burned in France and rabbis undertook that each one of them would learn one tractate by heart, so that among 60 men- that they knew the whole Talmud by heart. That was a rare phenomenon. Jews came to the synagogue to hear, to listen, to discuss. One or two had books. By the way, today we know to own a book in the Middle Ages was a sign of affluence.
BILL MOYERS: Yes.
GERSON COHEN: They had to be written by hand, they could not be printed. That’s why-by the way, in the end of the 15th century, somebody discovered that Hebrew printing could be a money maker. The Jews buy books. And some of these books, I should tell you, have been prayed out of existence. Or studied out of existence.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me why the observance of the Sabbath became so important in exile. You know, when I was growing up I kept hearing the term, that “more than Israel kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath kept Israel.” And somewhere I know it’s written, if you wish to destroy the Jewish people, abolish their Sabbath first. Why is that? Why did the Sabbath become such a critical engine of Jewish tradition?
GERSON COHEN: Well, it’s a day of cessation from work. It’s a day in which people came together not only to pray but to study. And it created a community of people wherever they were. I can tell you, we have a-have the memoirs of a man who decided he was going to walk around the world in 1187, a man by the name of Benjamin of the city of Tudalah. Wherever he came on for the Sabbath, he would ask for a meal and to be taken in as a guest. And the Sabbath was the seventh day, wherever Jews were. It creates a common sense of time and a common sense of vocabulary.
I can tell you that it also created a sense of family. We have the words of a Latin poet, about the year 100 of our era, who did not particularly like Jews, but he said, “When you walk across the Tiber into the Jewish quarter of Rome, you hear-you see windows belching smoke, you hear singing, and you get the smell of tunny fish,” which was a Mediterranean now what that means is, it was — candles were lighted or the 1amps-the Sabbath lamps were lighted because the Jews would not light a fire on the Sabbath, but the woman of the house always prepared for the Sabbath by lighting a fire and making-reciting a blessing of creating a light for the Sabbath. Then there was singing, which mean that Sabbath was a day of joy, and one greeted God not only with prayer but with actual song. And one of the beautiful things about the Sabbath to me is that to this day, we sing songs that are a thousand years old.
BILL MOYERS: And what does that say to you? I mean, you speak so lovingly of it.
GERSON COHEN: Yes, what it means is that we have a sense of antiquity but we don’t stop there. By the way, that’s always a battle. We want to change things. We want to have novelty and antiquity. And I would hope that that’s one of the great aspects of any living culture; to cherish the past and not yet be stuck with it and overburdened with it.
BILL MOYERS: What does Jewish history have to say to all of us, non-Jew and Jew alike?
GERSON COHEN: Well, what Jewish history has to say, I think, to Jews and non-Jews alike is first, a people’s existence depends upon a consciousness and awareness of a mandate that falls on every person within the community. The clergy cannot do it for you. The clergy may be there to teach, but it’s our role as laity, as it were, as simple folk, to fulfill.
Second of all, I think what Jewish history does teach is that if a people is aware of itself, it may be decimated, as the Jews were in large pan — portion under the Holocaust, under the Nazis, but they will not be destroyed. They can rise up from the ashes. And if you take the American Jewish community and the Israeli Jewish community, they are both phenomena that are simply marvelous. My parents and grandparents came from Eastern Europe where they had no rights. And one of the first memories that I have as a child, remembering, asking my father, “Can I become president of the United States?” And I soon learned that I was qualified, I was born in this country, and I had lived here fourteen consecutive years. Was it likely? No, it wasn’t likely; that I was assured. Nevertheless, the fact that it was open to me meant a great deal to me. Simply as-the same way that I could become a rabbi, I could become learned. From the moment of childhood, when I was conscious, I knew that I was responsible. Responsibility and partaking in this transmission of tradition is something important to me.
BILL MOYERS: The synagogue has been for Jews, since ancient days, a sanctuary. At times this has meant a meeting place, a house of prayer, a local courthouse and a place of study. Today there are many kinds of synagogues and many kinds of services, just as there is variety of practice and belief among the world’s Jews.
The division of Judaism into the branches we know today as Orthodox, Conservative and Reform is a relatively modem phenomenon. It emerged in response to the political and social emancipation of the Jews in 19th century Europe. The Reform movement asserted the legitimacy of change in Jewish belief and law, and set about to reform the service in keeping With the spirit of the times. The Orthodox viewed the Torah and its normative way of life as the revealed will of God — an ultimate standard not to be swayed by the transient values of any given age. As the world swirled about them, Orthodox Jews saw themselves the guardians of the Torah, its commandments and a particular way of life. Conservative Judaism affirmed emancipation as a positive good, but sought to preserve what they considered true, “historical” Judaism by introducing change only with great reluctance.
Within each of these movements — Reform, Orthodox and Conservative — there has been evolution; there exists a whole spectrum of opinion within each. But even with the wide range of expression that is contemporary Judaism, there are certain symbols that remain common to all Jews. No matter the country, no matter its changing historical role, no matter the particular flavor of its service, the synagogue is the sacred ground of their shared experience and heritage.
Saul Berman is the rabbi of an Orthodox congregation, Lincoln Square Synagogue, in New York City; He also teaches Judaic studies at Stem College of Yeshiva University, and his special area of concern is Jewish law. I asked him if he believed that the Hebrew Bible is telling history.
SAUL BERMAN: It’s not telling only history, and its motive is not primarily history. Judaism assumes that the motive of the telling of whatever is told in the Bible is not to provide a comprehensive picture of any of the figures of the Bible. The amount of space in the Bible devoted to the life of Abraham is just a handful of chapters. That certainly doesn’t encompass the full life of Abraham. And the desire is to select out of that life those incidents and those elements which bear meaning for the rest of time.
Therefore, an emphasis on the covenantal experiences of Abraham and his relationship with God, an emphasis on the way in which Abraham understood the nature of his responsibility to the rest of the society within which he lived, the selection of stories that reflect on moral judgment — whether proper moral judgment or immoral judgment. And that’s one of the striking characteristics of the Bible, is that it doesn’t attempt to place everyone into the best possible light. Stories of improper judgment are as important as stories of proper judgment. That’s the way we learn. It’s the recognition that even the ideal figures of Jewish history were really human beings, capable of error and capable of self-correction, and capable of improvement through their relationship with God.
There’s virtually not a figure in the entire Bible with regard to whom there is not a balance of accounts, of absolute magnificence with virtually absolute degradation.
BILL MOYERS: Who did this selecting? Who chose what we read in Genesis and Exodus and Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy?
SAUL BERMAN: God himself. And from the traditional Jewish perspective, for whatever content of the Bible may have pre-existed, the process of shaping language, the process of selecting accounts, norms, is all part of the process of revelation. Moses’ interaction with God is one in which he receives from God. Precisely what role Moses himself plays in that process of reception remains unknown. But that the product which we have, the five books of Moses, is the product of that interaction between God and Moses, is a clear element of traditional Jewish commitment.
BILL MOYERS: How would you answer the question, what must one do to be a Jew?
SAUL BERMAN: It’s a difficult question to answer.
BILL MOYERS: Is someone a Jew if he or she is born of Jewish parents but does not obey the law, does not live by Jewish law?
SAUL BERMAN: Yes, one remains a Jew. Being a Jew is a matter of being chosen by God, not a matter of one’s own choice and how to respond to that choice. The ultimate hope, obviously, is that every individual who is offered the opportunity to engage in that sort of relationship with God will respond to the opportunity, will use the opportunity to reshape the self in that relationship. But even if that opportunity is not accepted, the nature of the divine mission being imposed upon the Jewish people is one which is a dominant notion in Jewish thought.
BILL MOYERS: But you know, the interesting thing to me is as you talk, I hear Christians speak that way about living in this relationship. I hear Moslems speak this way about God’s will and carrying out God’s purpose, and yet still there is something unique when Jews speak of being a chosen people. What is it that makes it unique?
SAUL BERMAN: The fact that Judaism is, in fact, not just a matter of faith. That it is not just a matter of verbal expression, or confession. That ultimately it’s in the behavior, in the daily behavior, in the relationship that we have to our children as parents, in the relationship that we have to our friends, our spouses, in the relationship to the society. The awareness that God’s will plays itself out in every detail of human existence that constitutes a remarkably unique character in Jewish life, in that the governance of those elements, a part of the living process of relating to God and fulfilling his will.
BILL MOYERS: But are there certain beliefs that all Jews hold?
SAUL BERMAN: Very few. One of the central philosophical conflicts of Jewish history was involved in the attempt to reduce Judaism to .a minimal number of beliefs. What are the minimal number of beliefs that Jews must have to perceive truth? And the numbers range anywhere from one up to 613. And you take your pick. Certainly it would not be consonant with Jewish identity for a Jew not to believe in certain things: for a Jew not to believe in the universality of God, for a Jew not to believe in the unity of God, for a Jew not to believe that God is involved in human affairs, for a Jew not to believe that God’s will is in fact expressed through the revealed Torah.
But the critical issue is that even absent of those beliefs, one remains a Jew. And the fact is-I certainly know many people who come to wholeness in religious life via their belief in God. They start with a deep sense of conviction about God and that conviction leads them to a life of fulfillment of commandments. And yet I know other people whose life is so enriched by the experience with commandments that despite the fact that they do not believe in God, they conduct themselves in such total consonance with the commandments, that one would never know what their ideological commitments were.
BILL MOYERS: What do they live by?
SAUL BERMAN: They live by Jewish law. They will fully observe the Sabbath, they’ll keep kosher homes, they will observe the holidays. They will observe every element of Jewish law purely on the basis that the experience of doing those acts constitutes a dimension of enrichment to their personal lives which they’re unwilling to deny.
BILL MOYERS: And are you saying that it’s possible that some people — or do you know some people who live that way who do, who deny the existence of God?
SAUL BERMAN: Yes, I do.
BILL MOYERS: And you consider them Jewish?
SAUL BERMAN: Absolutely. I consider them in many ways good Jews.
BILL MOYERS: The paradox of that strikes one with stunning force. That for a people whose history, whose tradition, whose religion begins with that august revelation of God through Abraham and on down through the fathers, can live by the code of law and ethics that issues from that experience, and yet deny the existence of the force that gave it life and thrust and momentum.
SAUL BERMAN: It’s the translation into behavior which is much more critical than the underlying beliefs. The underlying beliefs, as it were, create a foundation for living a certain kind of life. It’s our conviction, of course, that living that kind of life can’t for long be sustained without the foundation. There is enormous difficulty in transmission of values without an awareness of the foundation of those values resting in revelation and in covenantal relationship.
BILL MOYERS: Is there something essential that-that Jews believe about afterlife?
SAUL BERMAN: Well, the fundamental conviction that it is possible for the human being to communicate with God. That God is responsive to the human condition, but that how he responds and when he chooses to respond is unknowable, is a critical element of Jewish awareness. And that, taken together with a belief in the eternity of the soul, with an awareness that somehow there is something of the human personality which continues to exist forever, and which on some level, in some unknown way, reunites with God, allows for the human being to deal more realistically, I think, with the problems that we confront in life.
BILL MOYERS: What becomes then the measure of salvation?
SAUL BERMAN: There’s no single measure of salvation. I was recently teaching a course on Jewish medical ethics, and we were dealing with material related to euthanasia. And in the course of that study we were studying a narrative in the Talmud about the martyrdom of Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon. He was one of the great scholars of the second century of the Common Era. He was martyred by the Romans and was subjected to a torturous death, and the Roman executioner was so impressed at the depth of belief of Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon that he offered to relieve him of his suffering, if he would promise him a share in the world to come. And Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon made the promise and the Roman executioner then did what he had to do to see to it that the death was easier. A heavenly voice emerges, says the Talmud, which then declared that Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon upon death had entered the world to come, but that the executioner, who then threw himself into the fire and died, had also entered the world to come. And one of the rabbis commented and said, “There are many who struggle an entire lifetime to achieve divine acceptance and others can somehow achieve that in a single moment, in a single act.”
BILL MOYERS: And the Roman executioner was not a Jew.
SAUL BERMAN: No.
BILL MOYERS: But according to Talmudic tradition found his salvation.
SAUL BERMAN: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: Found heaven by what he did at that particular moment.
SAUL BERMAN: That’s right. That his act of loving kindness, despite the context, that that momentary awareness of the need to do an act of loving kindness was so powerful that it was the guarantor of his salvation.
BILL MOYERS: There is that marvelous and enigmatic scripture in Deuteronomy where it says, “And thou shall do that which is right and good.” And the question immediately arises, how does one know the right and the good by Jewish tradition?
SAUL BERMAN: Yeah, well, it’s interesting, the rabbis understand that verse as positing a requirement to do acts of kindness beyond that which the law requires already. Otherwise, they feel, the verse would be redundant. After all, what is the whole of the Torah if not to teach man how to do the right and the good? Why, then, should it be necessary for the verse
to, as it were, repeat? To which the rabbis respond, “Well, clearly there are moments which we confront when doing that which the law commands is right and good, and yet even the best of law sometimes produces human suffering and undesired results, and we have to be cognizant of the fact that there are times, when with the best of intention, society creates instruments which produces injustice and unfairness. And we have to have the capacity at those times to say we need to correct and we have to go beyond what the law requires of us in doing that which is ultimately just.
BILL MOYERS: So there is a divine possibility beyond what the law makes possible.
SAUL BERMAN: That’s right. Maimonides expresses it in an extraordinary fashion.
BILL MOYERS: A great Jewish teacher of the, what, 13th century?
SAUL BERMAN: Thirteenth century. Maimonides says, “The only way in which human society could be governed to produce perfect justice would be if God himself were to judge every matter. But,” he says, “unfortunately God has not offered to make himself available for that purpose. Second best,” he says, “would be if we would be governed entirely by a prophet who could at least communicate with God and find out what’s just. But unfortunately, ” he says, “God does not always provide us with prophets in every generation to do that. And so,” he says, “what we’ve got is third best. Third best is that God gave us a body of law which, in the generality, can maximize justice more than any other possible body of law. But at the same time, even that perfect law can produce injustice precisely because of its equality of generality and its inability therefore to take in the peculiar situation in which the law itself might produce injustice. And, therefore,” Maimonides says, “Jewish law provides extraordinary flexibility to Jewish judges so that they can make the necessary correction in terms of what they understand from Jewish law to ultimately be God’s will. ”
It’s a difficult prescription to sustain. It’s a difficult balance between the need for an objective legal system and at the same time the need for the kind of subjectivity that will allow a judge to say, well, that here the law is not achieving its purpose and a more just result would be achieved by following another path. Nevertheless, Judaism has trod that path for many, many centuries and it’s been the source of enormous enrichment.
BILL MOYERS: As a rabbi of the Orthodox tradition and as a man, a scholar struggling to apply this tradition to daily life, what are some of the daily issues that you face, you and your people, in trying to apply Jewish law, Jewish tradition, Jewish scripture?
SAUL BERMAN: I find that for many of my congregants, the question of bringing into accord the daily demands of their business or professional practice and what they understand to be Judaism’s will in relation to ethical behavior are extraordinarily difficult.
Jewish law struggled for a very long time over the question of whether a vendor had the right not to reveal faults in a product to a vendee, to a purchaser. And ultimately the standards that Jewish law adopted were extraordinarily high. It was necessary for a seller to reveal what the true quality of the product was. It was not permissible for him even to hide faults by repainting, recoloring — full disclosure was necessary. It was not permissible to take advantage, in effect, to take advantage of the weaker position of the purchaser. After all, the purchaser had no way of knowing what the quality of this product was, said Jewish law. Then you have a duty-you, having that knowledge, have a duty to share with the vendee what the true character of that product is and on that basis let him decide whether to purchase it.
BILL MOYERS: So when Deuteronomy says, “And thou shall do that which is right and good,” it is saying, in our modem sense of the 20th century, try to find out the equivalent of what that was doing two — that injunction was doing 2,000 years ago — what’s the ethical thing to do.
SAUL BERMAN: That’s right. And that struggle is an extraordinarily difficult one.
BILL MOYERS: I remember discovering when I was studying Hebrew in seminary, that at the time of the ancient Israelites, many of the surrounding nations, many of the peoples with whom they had to coexist practiced slavery, believed it was morally acceptable and structured their legal system to sustain slavery. And here come the Israelites with their law saying no, that is not to be, slavery is wrong. And their legal system was constructed to avoid slavery, to end slavery.
SAUL BERMAN: Right, it’s a remarkable transition that takes place, and unfortunately one that has led to a lot of misunderstanding. For example, Hammurabi’s code had very extensive regulations related to slavery. One of those regulations relates in its language almost precisely to a passage in the book of Exodus.
BILL MOYERS: What’s the one?
SAUL BERMAN: In relation to a slave who refuses to go free at the end-a servant who refuses to go free at the end of seven years. In the book of Exodus, the Bible says that if a servant who was in for a duration of seven years was supposed to go free, and he says, “I don’t want to go free, I love my master, it’s great, it’s fantastic. My master supports me and he supports my family.” And the truth is, it was great. because the Bible had so transformed the institution of slavery, despite the fact that it continued to use the term; there was virtually no difference between what the Bible called slavery and employment — I mean that in the positive direction, not in the negative direction. To the point that the rabbis ultimately asserted that one who purchased a slave had purchased a master for himself, because the obligations of the master to the slave went beyond even the obligations of the master to his own family.
In any case, the Bible says if this man says, “I don’t want to go free,” that he is then brought to the gate of the city, where the court sat, and in the presence of the court he’s asked whether it’s true that he really doesn’t want to go free. And if he says, “That’s true, I don’t want to go free,” he’s allowed then to remain a slave until the jubilee year, but he’s punished by having his earlobe pierced. The piercing of the earlobe was the sign of enslavement.
BILL MOYERS: You mean, if I had been a slave and I refused the opportunity to go free. I would have my ear pierced.
SAUL BERMAN: Ear pierced. Now, in Hammurabi’s code there is a similar sounding law. It says as follows: “If a slave runs away and he’s recaptured by his master and the master is able to prove that in fact the slave belongs to him, that the slave is punished by having his ear cut off.” Now, for the Jews at the time of the Exodus, Hammurabi’s code was the common law of the ancient Near East, and they would have been aware that the penalty in the ear was a penalty for attempting to be free. And what the Bible does is builds on that awareness, but turns the value inside out. The penalty in the ear is the penalty for refusing to be free, for refusing to assume one’s responsibilities as a citizen.
BILL MOYERS: Now, how do you explain that? What was the source of that conviction about freedom — that you an individual must choose to be free?
SAUL BERMAN: Well, I think that’s the essential message of the whole of the Exodus, that the fact that the Torah emphasizes again and again that the Jewish people had to choose to leave with Moses. Do you know that there’s a rabbinic tradition that 80% of the Jews of Egypt did not leave; that 80% of the Jews of Egypt said, “What, are you crazy? Go into the desert? It may be bad for us here, but, my God, there isn’t even oil out there.” You know? And they stayed. Eighty percent of the Jews simply stayed in Egypt and 20% chose freedom. And that ability to have chosen freedom, to have chosen within that freedom in tum to enter into a covenant with God, is the central character of the Jewish experience, and it gets repeated over and over again in the Torah. Whenever the Torah says, for example, that the Jew is required to have special sensitivity to the stranger, special sensitivity to the oppressed, special sensitivity to the widow, to the poor, the constant justification of that is, remember, you were slaves in the land of Egypt. Remember your historical experience and out of that historical experience struggle to create a better society.
BILL MOYERS: So choice, with all its rigors, is freedom. and freedom. with all of its pain, is choice. But that invests in the human being a certain dignity, a certain moral beauty that one can’t have in slavery.
SAUL BERMAN: That’s why there’s such tremendous emphasis in Jewish philosophy on the notion even of freedom of thought. The notions of determinism were virtually wholly unacceptable to Jewish philosophers, because if the essence of being Jewish and if the essence, ultimately, of being human is to be free, then God could not have made us puppets. And then the responsibility is ours. And in tum, tremendous emphasis is placed on the notion of individual responsibility. Each individual is responsible for his or her own behavior. There is no acceptance of the claim, “Someone in authority told me to do that.” It’s a wholly unacceptable claim in Jewish law. To the point that in principle in Jewish law, if one person hires someone else to commit a crime, the person who hired is not culpable for the crime being committed. The person who committed the crime as a free moral agent has the responsibility to say no. If he said yes, it is his crime, no one else’s crime.
BILL MOYERS: And thou-you, individually, personally-shall do that which is right and good.
SAUL BERMAN: Yes. That’s a very good exegesis.
BILL MOYERS: I think everyone is familiar with the fourth commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” What’s so important in your tradition about the Sabbath?
SAUL BERMAN: Well, to begin with, the Jewish Sabbath expresses itself through the Jew refraining from productivity. It’s the one day on which the Jew does not attempt to transform the world.
BILL MOYERS: Why? What’s the significance of that, the ceasing from labors?
SAUL BERMAN: On the primary level, that constitutes an affirmation that God is the ultimate master of the world, not man. We get caught up in the entire week and in thinking about our own importance, and how much we do and how we can change the world. And there’s a need for the individual to be able to go back and say, “No, I’m not the ultimate productive force in the universe, God is.”
At the same time, that really addresses the question of what is the role of my own productivity in defining myself? Am I just that which I produce? Am I doctor, rabbi, lawyer, workman of any son, is that my essence? And the experience of the Sabbath says to us, no, that’s not your essence. Productivity is important, extraordinarily important for the human being to transform the world. to reshape it, to make it better, but that’s not the essence, and that’s not the whole. And we’ve got to be able to back away from that, and it’s that opportunity that the Sabbath provides. And in doing that, it critically shapes our ethical values, because it says not only am I not totally defined by my productivity, but then I can’t use another person’s productivity as the sole measure of that person.
BILL MOYERS: What does it mean, in your judgment, to keep it holy? What’s the-why the emphasis of the word holy?
SAUL BERMAN: The ultimate mandate for us to be whole in who we are is the process of imitation of God. I don’t think that holiness is a physical characteristic, that holiness is expressed in one’s withdrawal from the world; holiness is expressed in the way in which we live in this world.
BILL MOYERS: SO, keeping the Sabbath holy would mean living our lives, in modem terms, as much as possible in the image of God, reflecting God’s priorities?
SAUL BERMAN: Reflecting God’s desire for who we ought to be and really can be if we struggle in that direction.
BILL MOYERS: How does one avoid the dulling impact of repetitive religious behavior that becomes, that easily becomes, just a ritual?
SAUL BERMAN: With great difficulty. It requires a level of consciousness, of why one is doing the behavior. It requires constant struggle to understand. Behavior can become mechanical, can become devoid of meaning, can become empty, and it takes a struggle against it to keep the positive force sustained. And there are many Jews who fast, for example, every year on Yom Kippur, and all they’re aware of is that somehow, for some unknown reason, they’re not eating on that day. And if they would but use their energies to understand the meaning of that fast, the fact that in their fasting they’re not engaged in the negation of food, the negation of human consumption, but that that negative act, that that negative act has powerful positive statements to make. That it affirms human consumption.
But it makes us again withdraw, for the purpose of evaluation, that being hungry in the middle of a fast is precisely what the design of the law is. Because in our hunger, we ought to be asking ourselves, do we do enough to relieve the hunger of others? In our hunger, we ought to be asking ourselves, how do I usually satisfy my hunger? Do I do it ethically, do I do it responsibly? All of those positive questions have to emerge and have to be, confronted by the individual in order to make ritual a sustained meaning. It can be done.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think it is still possible for these ancient rituals to give meaning to life and joy to the heart?
SAUL BERMAN: Oh, extraordinarily so. I think the potential for human enrichment that exists within the life of full covenantal responsibility in the relationship with God have enormous potential for joy and fulfillment.
BILL MOYERS: For Heritage Conversations, I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on April 15, 2015.