A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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Longing for yesterday, grateful for today

When you think about earlier eras in American history, are you nostalgic, or are you relieved to be living today? It’s a generally conservative impulse to feel like life was better in some imagined or remembered past. And it’s a generally progressive attitude to feel like this is the best time to be alive yet. 

Who you are will likely affect your perspective. If you’re someone who has survived serious medical issues, you may be very glad to be living now. LGBTQ people, people of color, and women, among others, may feel like they have, on balance, more freedom, more rights, more safety, than they would have had in a previous era (although with the Dobbs decision, the rise of anti-trans legislation, and the end of affirmative action, feelings might be changing). 

If you’re a rabbi, priest or minister of anything but a megachurch, you may long for the 1950s, when sanctuaries were full. While our kids might be puzzled by it, we might long for a time without smartphones. We might long for a time before the anxiety of climate change.

As I read the numerous laws of Parashat Ki Tetzei, I feel torn between these conservative nostalgia and progressive relief. On the one hand, it sounds pretty great!

Deuteronomy here creates a world where people are commanded to care for stray animals they find, both for the benefit of the animal and for their neighbor, whose animal it probably is. We are to be responsible for all kinds of lost objects. If someone’s donkey or ox falls down we have to help them up. There are building codes premised on safety, and rules about ethical hunting and harvesting. We can eat the produce in someone else’s field if we’re hungry, but we can’t take more than we can eat. Poor or foreign workers are not to be taken advantage of. We are to leave the corners and forgotten sheaves of our fields for the poor, and we are to have honest weights and measures. 

Doesn’t this sound like a just, warm, supportive community to be a part of, and the kind of community that doesn’t really exist anymore? 

On the other hand, amidst these great rules for living are other laws that I’m relieved are not normative in my community. I’m glad we don’t do corporal punishment anymore, and that we don’t stone rebellious children. I don’t long for the days of levirate marriage. I’m glad we welcome sincere converts from all backgrounds, and don’t exclude people from certain places or ethnicities. I’m very glad we don’t stone engaged women who are sexually assaulted but don’t cry out. And I’m relieved that a single woman who is sexually assaulted doesn’t have to marry her assailant. I’m glad we don’t think it is ok for women to be treated as spoils of war. And I’m proud that in my community, people can wear the clothing they want, and aren’t restricted to the clothing of the gender they were assigned at birth. 

Some of these problematic laws have been narrowed to become impossible to implement (i.e. the rebellious child). Others have changed simply through the passage of time (not excluding Ammonites and Moabites from conversion). And some (gender-based clothing norms) are still in force in some Jewish communities. 

There are ways we’re all conservatives. And there are ways we’re all progressives. Can’t we be both? What possibilities for empathy might exist for people whose political leanings are different from ours? 

A critical, loving reading of Torah helps us to appreciate the past, love the present, and dream for the future. 

Rabbi Noah Arnow serves Kol Rinah and is a past president of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.

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