Emor - weekly Torah portion

The concept “there shall be one law for you; it shall be for the stranger as well as the native” appears not only in this week’s portion of the Torah but also in many other places. It is repeated again and again as a fundamental pillar of Jewish law. A law that has its roots in the deep memory of being strangers in a foreign land, the land of Egypt where law was not equally applied upon the native and the stranger. This inequality of the application of the law was so clear and so unjust that it has become a symbol of everything that we should not be.

“There shall be one law for you” says first and foremost that all citizens, and in biblical terms these are the Israelites, shall have a law that will equally apply to all. This idea was not prevalent in the ancient times, and admittedly not even in the 20th and 21st centuries either. George Orwell wrote in his book “Animal Farm” that “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” That included lack of voting rights to women, unequal marriage rights, apartheid, and more.

The addition, “it shall be for the stranger as well as the native” takes it a significant step forward. It says that the law will not only be the same for a specific group of the land who are citizens, or natives, but also apply to those who are strangers and are outside of that privileged circle. In many cases in the bible this demand from us is justified by the memory of us being foreigners in the land of Egypt, but not this time. Here is says, “there shall be one law for you; it shall be for the stranger as well as the native, for I am the Lord your God.” It is a simple command without a rational reasons other than that it is the word of God making this requirement of “one law” fundamental.

The Knesset has recently passed in an initial reading a new basic law: Israel – The Nation State pf the Jewish People. It is an attempt to take principles from the Declaration of Independence and enacting a basic law in the absence of a constitution. Different people have different views about this piece of law, some of which are positive, others which are negative. I do not wish to discuss the merits of this piece of law today even though there is merit and place to have this debate about the necessity of such law and its particular verbiage.

Today I would like to talk about section 13 that discusses the place of the Hebrew Law that says (my free translation): when the court debates a legal question that needs a decision, and has not found an answer in law, precedence or by way of distinct deduction, it shall decide based on the principles of freedom, justice, integrity and peace of Jewish heritage. I think it will be here were the court will have to decide also how to implement “There shall be one law for you”. It surely fits all the standard of freedom, justice, integrity and peace, and there is no doubt whatsoever that this is a pillar of Jewish heritage. It is here that the readiness of the State of Israel will be tested to its willingness to readily adopt this principle. It will mean equal rights to people of all religions in Israel, equal rights to each stream within each religion, or simply put, equal rights to everyone. It will also test the requirement that the requirements will be equal to and shall be cross-sector as well as cross-gender. Because even though it may go unnoticed, there is a contradiction in the language of the law where on one hand decision have to be made in accordance with the principles of freedom, justice, integrity and peace of Jewish heritage, while on the other hand this may be done only in cases where there is no such law to the contrary, or in other words, it is possible to enact laws that are not based on these fundamental principles.

“There shall be one law for you; it shall be for the stranger as well as the native”, so seemingly simple, in practice not always implemented even in its most basic and restricted interpretation. And yes, it is understood that many times there are difficulties, many times values collide with other values, some which may be equally important, but it seems that in general things fall by the side road for political expediency. I doubt if there exists more noble ideas than those presented by our prophets when discussing these principles of freedom, justice, integrity and peace. It is also sadly easy to take only a selected portion and forget about “there shall be one law”. We shall be here to remind, to warn, and to change course.

Shabbat Shalom.

Reuven Marko, 13 Iyar 5777, 12 May 2017

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