Bereshit 20/20: What Torah Teachs Us About Democracy

When T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights embarked on our Torah 20/20 project this past October (with funding from Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah), the goal was to offer Jewish wisdom and language to frame and nourish the activism happening across the American Jewish left. A year’s worth of divrei Torah, following the weekly synagogue reading cycle from creation to Moses’ death, which we’ll read just a few weeks before the 2020 election.

Specifically, we asked each author to reflect on what the Jewish wisdom in that week’s portion teaches about democracy and how we build a just society. The project is nonpartisan, in keeping with T’ruah’s 501c3 status, but writers are free to comment on specific issues, rhetoric, and the nature of democracy itself.

This brings us to a larger question: should we expect to get 52 distinct, atomized divrei Torah, or would there be broader themes that repeat, where we could potentially say the Torah is speaking on a deeper level? Granted, a clever interpreter can read almost anything into the Torah–but even so, what is it that progressive Jewish leaders are seeking to find in that ancient scroll this year?

Having recently completed the Book of Genesis, it seemed the right time for a first test of that hypothesis. Looking back at the 13 commentaries (including a kickoff piece written for Simchat Torah), I was pleased to see two key themes emerging–one surprising, one less so. Full disclosure: I serve as the editor of the series. But aside from when I know in advance a particular author will address a certain topic–like Abby J. Leibman, CEO of MAZON, writing about hunger, or Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street about Israel–I am not steering the writers to any particular issue or lens on the Torah. So even though the sample size is small, I think I can say honestly that these patterns are genuine.

You might have thought that these divrei Torah would largely be full of clarion calls to progressive policies, rooted in the text. And there were a couple of those–Ruth Messinger on climate change, Rabbi Sharon Brous on sexual assault and toxic masculinity. But the two key patterns that emerged were more like broad-brush approaches to our society than deep-dives on specific issues.

The message that came through most strongly, picked up in five of the commentaries, surprised me a bit–though perhaps it should not have. It was about the importance of reaching across difference and listening to the other, rather than closing ourselves in our own echo chambers. From Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow’s introductory piece on Adam and Eve not seeing eye to eye about the fruit to Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s about how everyone–even our adversaries–is created in the divine image. From Rabbi Sandra Lawson’s personal take on Lech Lecha to Rabbi Zelig Golden’s interpretation of Jacob going outside his comfort zone to Cindy Greenberg, President and CEO of Repair the World, about Judah and Tamar.

The other key pattern that emerged in three commentaries actually flows from the first: how we wield power ethically, and how we compete without destroying each other. Rabbi Burt Visotzky drew the lesson from the Sodom story about exercising power with humility and transparency. Rabbi Michael Holzman drew it from Jacob’s conflict with Esau, “to amass and use political power, but not seek to destroy, sideline or exclude political opponents.” And Joy Ladin, taking Joseph as her archetype, reminded us how essential the “art of losing” is to a democracy, where different ideas and leaders routinely cycle into and out of power. (As we move further into the year, more non-clergy of various stripes will be contributing.)

Why did the emphasis on reaching across difference surprise me? Because I often assume, perhaps cynically, that this is a message largely championed by moderates. Because I feel strongly that on the life and death issues facing the electorate this year, of which there are so many (climate change, healthcare, immigration, abortion) there is often not a valid “other side,” no matter how much “fair and balanced reporting” tries to force that narrative. Because I’m not sure I believe anymore that compromise is in and of itself a value–which is in part because, as Joy Ladin pointed out, the Christian nationalists who oppose my views for sure don’t see it as one. I am in part a victim of the polarized, zero-sum-game that I wish didn’t exist.

Why, in hindsight, should it not have surprised me? Because these are rabbis and other Jewish communal leaders, not cut-throat political operatives or pure ideologues, and so they care about people. They care about people’s souls. And as much as they hold their own personal values and policy preferences, that’s not what they come to Torah for. They instead are seeing a push towards reconnection and healing, even when that feels difficult. If there’s a spiritual as well as a practical lesson to take from all this, it’s that we don’t only need to create a world where everyone can live sustainably and have their human rights respected; we have to bring our political opponents along so they also feel they have a place in that world.

It’s hard for me to imagine creating that world right now, in the midst of the knock-down-drag-out politics of the impeachment. So I count myself and the Jewish community fortunate that we have such teachers among us and such wisdom in our tradition—and I look forward to seeing what wisdom will emerge through the rest of Torah 20/20. Because whoever wins this election—and the next one, and the next one—we are going to have to continue living together on this Earth. There’s no other planet we can ship the losers to.

Find Torah 20/20 online at


Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson is Director of Rabbinic Training at T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.

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