For some people, the Torah (or Judaism or religion in general) is a source of deep inspiration and wisdom. They find values like, “all people are created in the image of God” or “love your neighbor as yourself” or “justice, justice shall you pursue,” and proudly proclaim how the Torah gives us excellent moral advice.
For others, the Torah (or Judaism or religion in general) is a source of deep embarrassment at best, and abject horror at worst. They find many verses that are misogynistic, or glorify killing, or command the town to stone a rebellious child, and are shocked that anyone would turn to these texts as guideposts for our lives today.
The reality is that the Torah has both elements in it. While we may want to see the Torah as revolutionary, it’s more accurate to say that it is evolutionary — its laws and customs were set up for a specific time and place, which have since changed since they were first set down. And this evolutionary process — from the Rabbis of the Talmud to later commentators to scholars and rabbis today — helps us both understand the text in its own time and place, and how we have grown as a society since then.
Consider this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh. Like the rest of Deuteronomy, many of its laws strive to ensure a shared communal worship of God. And in it, the text shares what the Israelites should do if they discover a town that has turned to idolatry:
If you hear it said, of one of the towns that Adonai your God is giving you to dwell in, that some scoundrels from among you have gone and subverted the inhabitants of their town, saying, “Come let us worship other gods” — whom you have not experienced — you shall investigate and inquire and interrogate thoroughly. If it is true, the fact is established — that abhorrent thing was perpetrated in your midst — the inhabitants of that town to the sword and put its cattle to the sword. Doom it and all that is in it to destruction: gather all its spoil into the open square, and burn the town and all its spoil as a burnt offering to Adonai your God. And it shall remain an everlasting ruin, never to be rebuilt. (Deut. 13:13-17)
These verses seem horrific to us now. Even if we understand it as part of a goal to build a community built around the worship of one God, or as a rejection of idolatry that might have led to practices like child sacrifice, it still seems to be an unusually harsh sentence.
That’s why the Rabbis reframe these verses. As Sanhedrin 71a claims: “There has never been an idolatrous city and there will never be one in the future.” Rabbi Eliezer says that even if one house had a mezuzah, then it was not an idolatrous city. Similarly, the Rabbis say that there had never been a “rebellious son” who would need to be stoned, or argue that “an eye for an eye” really means monetary compensation. In other words, the Rabbis of the Talmud saw that morality evolves, and took the texts of the Torah and brought in more modern understandings of right and wrong.
And just like biological evolution, moral evolution doesn’t ever stop or have an endpoint. We can look back at where a society was, and see how much we’ve grown. As former President Barack Obama said just a few years ago, “If you had to choose one moment in history in which to be born, and you didn’t know in advance whether you were going to be male or female, which country you were going to be from, what your status was, you’d choose right now.” This doesn’t mean our world is perfect, or that there aren’t real and significant challenges we face. But it does mean that we can recognize moral evolution as looking back on the way humanity has become more compassionate and more just over the centuries.
Perhaps that’s why, in a continuation of the text in Sanhedrin 71a, the Rabbis ask why the Torah even brings up the idolatrous city, if it never existed: “So that [we] may expound upon new understandings of the Torah and receive reward for [our] learning.” Only by looking back on history can we see a better potential future.