A Weekly Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 6.25.21

June 25, 2021

Many in our country are deeply concerned about the “post-truth” age that we are living in. In an era of Q-Anon conspiracy theories that have gained astonishingly wide traction, of broadly disseminated election-fraud frauds, and a general rejection of demonstrable fact, certain fundamental values are being tested to the breaking point.

For me, the product of a pluralistic Rabbinical Academy, the concept of pluralism is (at least theoretically) just such a core value. Pluralism is difficult to define, but the basic idea is that rather than there being only one consistent means of approaching truths about the world, there are many.

Accepting that basic premise is where the work lies. It’s more than saying, “well, you have a right to your opinion.” It’s the acknowledgement that your interlocutor’s views are every bit as valid, or “true” as your own. And needless to say, that presents a host of difficulties that require great energy and thought to iron out. 

Let me give you a theoretical example from Jewish life: if an organization is hosting a dinner for a cross-section of Jews, from secular to Orthodox, is the meal required to be kosher? If you say yes, then you are effectively saying that one group is setting the standard – the kosher-keeper group’s values override the values of everyone else (I call it a theoretical example because it does not consider certain practicalities or simple courtesies, though even that can be complicated!). In our current national socio-political moment, it’s awfully hard to brook that the position of someone who believes that, say, President Biden is running a child-sex-trafficking ring out of a D.C. pizza parlor is as valid an opinion as, say, nearly anything else.

Parashat Balak, which we read this week, also puts this notion to the test. Best known for its talking-donkey, the “Book of Bilaam” (as it’s called in the Talmud) tells the story of the Moabite King Balak, who hires the mercenary pagan prophet Bilaam to curse the Israelites. Following the Israelite conquests that ended last week’s parasha, King Balak is terrified that the Israelites will wipe him and his people out, and given their apparent military might, he feels that he needs a leg up. Bilaam will be his secret weapon, for, as he says to the prophet, “I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” Needless to say, things don’t go according to plan; God does not permit the scheme to go forward, and Bilaam ends up blessing the Israelites with some of the most beautiful and laudatory poetry in the Torah: Ma tovu oha-lecha Yaakov / How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!

Some scholars and commentators discuss the pluralistic nature of Bilaam. He is, after all, a prophet of great renown. The sages have him on a par with Moses himself – the pagan equal of Moshe Rabbeinu! Wherefore does a pagan prophet possess such stature? In a beautiful d’var Torah this week, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg elaborates on the pluralistic quality of the story: “For the most part, the Bible sees the surrounding religions as idolatrous and spiritually ineffective, but [Bilaam’s] emergent blessing makes clear that God reveals truth to non-Jewish prophets. This, in turn, means that God cares deeply about non-Jews. After all, they too are in the image of God and precious to the lord. Therefore, God does not abandon them in spiritual ignorance and self-referential concern. God connects to them, so that they too can play their part in realizing the vision of tikkun olam. God seeks their partnership in world repair.”

If the story of Bilaam is an example of pluralistic values in the Torah, the end of the parasha has something very different to say. In another powerful and disturbing narrative, Pinchas, the son of Elazar the priest and the grandson of Aharon, sees an Israelite man taking a Moabite woman into his tent, presumably in order to have carnal relations. Pinchas impales them both with a spear, killing them. It’s a complicated story involving the spiritual, as well as the sexual seduction of the Israelites, and an extra-judicial killing that (as we will discover next week) is richly rewarded by God. 

What I am proposing is that the juxtaposition of these two stories in our parasha gets to the heart of the complexity of “practicing” pluralism. On the one hand, it is a lofty and noble philosophy. On the other hand, sometimes it’s just too hard to put into practice. I struggle to understand how I am to engage with people whose ideas are so radically different from my own; who are, in my opinion, so tragically uninformed or misinformed as to make discussion and engagement all but impossible. But they, no doubt, feel the same way about me. “Pizza-gate” may be an extreme example, but it is increasingly the direction our country is headed in, fraying whatever bonds of pluralistic tendencies might still exist. Pinchas, rather than Bilaam, is becoming the go-to national response.

At the end of the day, I can’t avoid holding the opinions and beliefs – the truths – that I hold; but I try to walk through life with the angel of pluralism whispering in my ear, reminding me that whatever “tikkun olam” we might be privileged to see in our lifetime comes from a mutuality of understanding that others have their truths too. Hopefully, that can be the beginning, and not the end, of the discussion.

Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat!

Rabbi Sam Levine