Even the Devil Can Cite Scripture

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There is a certain Jewish activist organization that opposes Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank and Gaza. The week of parshas Shoftim, this organization tweeted:

This shabbat is Shabbat Shoftim. That parsha contains the enduring quote ‘tzedek, tzedek tirdof–justice, justice shall you pursue”

Shabbat shalom to everyone who pursues justice, too

Many, many people had a comment to make on this, quite a number of them making the same observation. The one I first saw was from Jerusalem Post editor Lahav Harkov, who responded:

“Justice, Justice shall you pursue, so that you may live and inherit the land that God gave you,” is the full sentence. I notice you left out that last bit.

What Harkov and others pointed out is a prime example of “cherry picking” the text – selecting the parts that support what we want to say and ignoring those inconvenient portions that go against our agendas. It’s a common practice and we’re all probably guilty of doing it now and then. I have certainly acquired many anecdotal examples from my own experience. For example, a non-observant parent once complained to me about their teenager’s insistence on keeping Shabbos, which apparently put a crimp in the family’s weekend routine. “What about ‘honor your father and mother?’” she asked, invoking the fifth of the “Ten Commandments,” while conveniently ignoring the fourth, “Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it.” (I assume she was not familiar with Leviticus 19:3, which conflates both of these obligations: “A person must defer to his mother and father and observe My sabbaths.”)

A more humorous example of cherry picking might be the fairly ubiquitous Leviticus 18:22 tattoo. People who get such tattoos are clearly declaring that they consider the Bible to be a rulebook for life, ironically ignoring the overt prohibition against tattooing in the very next chapter (19:28).

Sometimes the text is cherry-picked to promote political or social agendas that are counter to Jewish law by making it appear as if halacha actually supports them. Often, the concept of “Love your neighbor” is bandied about as if it were the only rule in the Torah. But if the Torah is authoritative (as we believe it is), then all of its laws count. If we get to pick and choose, then why should “Love your neighbor” be an immutable concept any more than anything else?

In Pirkei Avos (3:11) Rabbi Elazar of Modin says that if a person interprets the Torah not in accordance with halacha, even if he possesses Torah knowledge and good deeds, he has no share in the Next World. This idea is echoed in 5:8, where we are told that the sword is brought upon the world because of those who interpret the Torah not in accordance with the law. The Bartinuro on this latter Mishna specifies that this applies equally to declaring prohibited things to be permitted and to declaring permitted things to be prohibited.

What does it mean to interpret the Torah not in accordance with halacha? The Bartinuro on 3:11 cites an example from the Mishna in Megillah (4:9): one who interprets Leviticus 18:21 (which prohibits giving one’s children to the idolatrous service of Molech) as a prohibition against procreation with non-Jewish women.

Now don’t get me wrong: intermarriage is unambiguously prohibited under Jewish law. And intermarriage between a Jewish man and a non-Jewish woman is arguably the worst form of intermarriage because the offspring won’t be Jewish and may well follow idolatry, like Molech. But intermarriage is by no means a capital offense, which would be the implication of attributing it to Leviticus 18:21. Even though such an interpretation is actually more stringent than the Torah’s law, it is still prohibited as a perversion of the truth. (Rabbi Yaakov Sasson, a grandson of Rav Ovadia Yosef, attributes this idea to the Tashbatz but I did not find it in so many words so it may represent his own interpretation.)

Rabbi Gil Student also cites the Tashbatz on this matter. He writes:

The Rashbatz … takes this in a slightly different way. He includes people who accept the written Torah as completely binding but then derive from it laws that contradict the oral Torah. … Prior to the Rashbatz, the Meiri had already taken this further, in response to what was a growing problem in his time. He applies this label to anyone who allegorizes verses in the Torah, but not any verse — specifically commandments. Anyone who allegorizes a commandment to the point of saying that it is not obligatory (i.e. he permits eating pig) is considered someone who unmasks the face of the Torah contrary to the law.

(Rabbi Student says Rashbatz and I said Tashbatz but both names refer to the same person – Rav Shimon ben Tzemach Duran of 15th-century Spain.)

The importance of the Oral Law in such matters does not originate with the Tashbatz, or even the Meiri (who preceded him by about a century); Chazal tell it to us in tractate Sanhedrin. In Mishna 11:3, they tell us that acknowledging the oral interpretation of the Torah can sometimes have more stringent implications than acknowledging the actual text. For example, if a Torah scholar were to deny that there’s such a mitzvah as tefillin in the Torah, that would be a terrible thing but he would not be subject to execution as a rebellious elder. If he were to rule, however, that tefillin properly have five compartments rather than four (which is our oral tradition), then he would be liable. (The Bartinuro notes that the mishna uses an example in which the rebellious elder adds on to the accepted understanding rather than detracting from it. Both kinds of misinterpretation are equally prohibited.)

Shakespeare put it as follows:

“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. An evil soul producing holy witness is like a villain with a smiling cheek, a goodly apple rotten at the heart. O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!” – The Merchant of Venice (I,iii)

The Torah does not require that we all have to be in lockstep. We can have different religious practices and different political opinions, each person following his own conscience and the Torah as he understands it from his teachers. But are we being intellectually honest? We have to make sure that the Torah we cite in support of our views is actually correct and in context. Whether one is being lenient or stringent, misrepresenting what the Torah says in order to further our personal agendas is never a good idea.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.