From its earliest days, Judaism has existed in contrast to one prevailing culture or another. Jews are perennially "inside-outsiders" who participate in their broader communities but always at something of a remove. This isn't a bug but rather a feature of our tradition, providing the key ingredient to our ongoing ability to add our particular truth to the project of human flourishing.
Inside-Outsiders: Continuing to Shine as a Light to the Nations
Eighteen years ago, Senator Joseph Lieberman ran for Vice President of the United States. Never before had a Jew sought such a prominent public office, and questions abounded about whether America was ready for a Jewish Vice President.
In particular, Jews and non-Jews alike questioned whether Senator Lieberman’s orthodox Shabbat practice would get in the way of his formal duties. How could a person who doesn’t ride in cars, talk on the phone, or write from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday inhabit such a critical position?
According to Lieberman himself, he hoped to function as Vice President the same way he operated as a senator. On Shabbat, he’d avoid campaigning or other strictly political duties, but if an issue of vital importance needed his attention, he’d be ready. Still, he might have to walk to the meeting, rather than drive.
Could an observant Jew be vice president or even president? Of course. But that presidency would be unique. Because Judaism is, by design, distinct from the prevailing culture.
Distinctiveness has been essential to Judaism since it began. Abraham is called in the Torah an Ivri, which we usually translate as “Hebrew.” But a more literal translation of Ivri would be “other-sider” since Abraham comes from the “other side” of the Euphrates River (Joshua 24:2).
Indeed, the early rabbis saw Abraham not only as geographic foreigner but also as a theological loner. The Midrash teaches that Abraham is called an Ivri—an “other-sider”—because “the whole world was on one side while he was on the other” (Genesis Rabbah 42:8). And from that point forward, Abraham’s descendants would always be outside the mainstream even as we have been immersed in it. As it was said by Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Orthodox Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, “Throughout the centuries Jews have been the most striking example of a group that refused to assimilate to the dominant culture or convert to the dominant faith.” In other words, Jews have always been what we might call “inside-outsiders,” participating in society while always at something of a remove.
Being “inside-outsiders” has given our people a distinct role to play in the societies in which we have lived. Drawing from the insights of our own particular tradition, Jews have offered necessary critique when our communities have gone astray. Indeed, this is one of the stated purposes of the Torah. As we read in the book of Deuteronomy: “You shall observe and perform [the mitzvot], for doing so is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations. When they hear all of these rules, they will say, ‘What a wise and understanding people is this great nation!’” (Deut. 4:6). As the 12th-century scholar Joseph Bechor Shor explains, “We can draw others near to God through [our observance of] the mitzvot” (commentary ad loc). In other words, Jewish behaviors and beliefs can help ourselves and our neighbors improve the world in which we live.
Take for example this week’s Torah portion, Behar. Our chapter focuses on the sabbatical year, a periodic cessation of working the land. Every seven years, Leviticus teaches, farmers must refrain from cultivation. People can eat from whatever grows naturally from the crops, but no one can gather food for personal storage and use. We recall that at all times, the poor of the land are permitted to eat the gleanings of the harvest and from the untended corners of the field. Once every seven years, the entire society lives this way, depending on natural bounty rather than human ingenuity.
Sounds fantastical, right? That everyone would leave their fields fallow every seven years in hopes that things will turn out all right? Except according to all accounts, it really happened, century after century, through the fall of the second temple. Indeed, Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, writes that Julius Caesar himself exempted the Jews from taxes every seven years “because thereon they neither receive the fruits of their trees, nor do they sow their land.” The Jewish people gave up commercial flourishing in honor of their sacred tradition, valuing morals above money.
The sabbatical year is designed to alleviate economic disparity and to cultivate empathy for the poor. And it is irrational, imprudent, and—some would say—foolish. For all these reasons, it is a prime example of Judaism being productively countercultural. Our tradition doesn’t oppose the general cultural, seeking to be antagonistic or chauvinist. Rather, the goal is to offer ethical guidance, to force the community to think about things differently and to focus our attention less on ourselves and more on the spirit of holiness that binds us together.
Of course, this is a two-way street. As Jews, we are first-and-foremost human beings. This means that, when the general society agrees on certain moral values, Jews are just as obligated to them as anyone else. As the 20th-century Rabbi Moshe Glasner wrote, “Anything that violates the norms of enlightened human beings cannot be permitted to us.” In our own communities, then, we must always remain open to outside influence, to learn from the wisdom of diverse people and cultures in order to persistently improve ourselves.
And as we continue to grow and change, to adapt and clarify in Jewish terms our vision of an ideal world, we sustain our ongoing task of sharing this vision with others. We listen in order to grow. And we challenge in order to inspire.
This role is best expressed in the prophecy of Isaiah, affirmed in our prayer book: God charges us, “I, Adonai, have called you to righteousness, and taken you by the hand, and kept you; I have made you a covenant people, a light to the nations.” Judaism wants the Jewish community to be different, to not entirely fit in, so that we can maintain the critical distance necessary to offer our own unique ethical insights, to do our part in making the world a better place for all.
And so let us consider: what are the lessons of Jewish wisdom that we find most necessary in our society today? What aspects of Jewish life can we champion even when they become unpopular?
Our Torah portion, again, reminds us of the centrality of Shabbat (cf. Lev. 26:2) and the sabbatical year, which both stand as symbols of the inherent dignity and integrity of all created beings. How might we continue to stand for the ideals of Shabbat in a world that increasingly demands activity and access 24 hours a day, 7 days a week?
We might also consider the moral grandeur of our parashah, which outlines a society of fairness and equality for all whom we would call our sisters and brothers. The Torah this week radically challenges the fundamentals of capitalism—wherein each person looks out for Number One—urging us instead to create a society in which property belongs to all and the land belongs to no one but God. How might this vision of extreme parity motivate our choices in the public square?
And what of any number of ritual concerns at which the wider world might look askance? In a land of unending food options, what does it mean to restrict our diet based on our principles? In a society increasingly skeptical of communal boundaries, how can our connection to rituals such as circumcision and conversion continue to inspire lasting meaning? And in a community attuned to team schedules and workplace demands, when can we make space for the holidays and occasions that have for untold centuries bound Jews together in a sacred cycle of time? As we find ways of embracing the particularities of our tradition, we can become more deeply rooted both to our community and to our own souls, nourishing ourselves and one another from the fountain of Jewish wisdom.
The climax of this week’s Torah reading is the sabbatical of sabbaticals, the jubilee year, in which land ownership is revoked and all debts are cancelled. It is to be announced once every fifty years by the blowing of the shofar on the Day of Atonement: “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Lev. 25:10). This vision of radical equality, inscribed indelibly on the Liberty Bell, serves as an enduring reminder of the impact Judaism can have on the society in which we live. America itself was founded on the concept of ever-expanding freedom, an idea native to the Jewish tradition and championed by American Jews since our earliest days.
We have yet to realize that hallowed dream of universal freedom, as the crack in the Liberty Bell continues to remind us. But as “inside-outsiders,” we commit to our responsibility to keep trying, to surge against the current when our tradition pushes us forward. Our prophets urge us and our community supports us in this most sacred duty.
For God has said:
It is too little that you should be My servant
To raise up the tribes of Jacob
And restore the offspring of Israel;
I will also make you a light to the nations,
That my salvation may reach the ends of the earth (Isaiah 49:6).
 וַיַּגֵּד לְאַבְרָם הָעִבְרִי (בראשית יד יג). ... רבי יהודה אומר כל העולם כולו מעבר אחד והוא מעבר אחד.
 כי היא חכמתכם ובינתכם לעיני העמים. אפי' בעיני העמים שאינם מאמיני בתורה, ועוד שאתם מתקרבים לפני המקום על ידי המצות.
 See “The Sabbatical Year” in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, p. 855.
 Antiquities of the Jews 14:10:6: Γάιος Καῖσαρ αὐτοκράτωρ τὸ δεύτερον ἔστησεν κατ᾽ ἐνιαυτὸν ὅπως τελῶσιν ὑπὲρ τῆς Ἱεροσολυμιτῶν πόλεως Ἰόππης ὑπεξαιρουμένης χωρὶς τοῦ ἑβδόμου ἔτους, ὃν σαββατικὸν ἐνιαυτὸν προσαγορεύουσιν, ἐπεὶ ἐν αὐτῷ μήτε τὸν ἀπὸ τῶν δένδρων καρπὸν λαμβάνουσιν μήτε σπείρουσιν.
Gaius Caesar, imperator the second time, hath ordained, That all the country of the Jews, excepting Joppa, do pay a tribute yearly for the city Jerusalem, excepting the seventh, which they call the sabbatical year, because thereon they neither receive the fruits of their trees, nor do they sow their land (trans. from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2848/2848-h/2848-h.htm).
 דור רביעי, הקדמה, כו.כו:, ר' משה שמואל גלזנר, הונגריה, המאה הי"ט-כ', as cited by Ethan Tucker here: http://mechonhadar.s3.amazonaws.com/mh_torah_source_sheets/CJLVEthicalNorms.pdf, p. 11.
 אֲנִי יְיָ קְרָאתִיךָ בְצֶדֶק וְאַחְזֵק בְּיָדֶךָ וְאֶצָּרְךָ וְאֶתֶּנְךָ לִבְרִית עָם לְאוֹר גּוֹיִם (Isaiah 42:6). Translation from Mishkan T’filah p. 465 (left-page reading for Emet V’yatziv for Festival Morning).
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