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On Buddha and Moses and The Basis Of Judaism: Justice

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Sitting inside a new brewery in San Diego (we have like 300) owned by a Jewish family that chose a Nordic theme, decorated with ship paintings and large round shields, I looked across the room at the 100 or so Jews as Rabbi Nadav spoke of Buddha and Moses. The Rabbi was educated at every Ivy league you can think of. With a trim goatee, glasses and brown kippa to match his velvet brown vest read from a print out about the fact that like Buddha, Moses had three experiences that changed the course of his life.


When Moses left the confines of the castle, he saw an Egyptian overseer beating a Jew, a Jew beating a Jew and man abusing women. Perhaps having been born in a genocide and saved by the kind heart of the Pharoah’s daughter,  in each case of injustice he could not stand by idly. Each case he felt he had to do something about it, even at the cost of personal freedom and safety.

Eventually, his idealism and the need to create a more just world lead him to let go of all he had of his new and good life in Midean and go back to Egypt.  Perhaps it was because he grew up free and thus knew that Jews living in slavery was an injustice that he could not live with. Whatever his motivation happened to be, he chose to go back to a land where there was a death sentence to his name. He forsook the money and family he built at this time and went to a place where near certain death awaited, because for him, living with injustice was worse than death.

After Moses took the Jewish people out of Egypt, he saw an unruly people. Slaves don’t have laws, they have rules set by their captors. He had to create a code of law, a rule book for the Jewish people; a constitution. He also had to give the Jewish people a culture and a way of life that would ensure survival of the new society they were to create. He had to create laws, accountability: justice.

What Moses created with the help of God and his experiencing of growing up in the Egyptian court, is a system of laws tied to religion, where for the first time in known history, happiness of God and therefore the well-being of the people worshipping that God, no longer had to do with what the people gave to God. We saw what happened with Cain and Abel, where a better gift created resentment and death. Instead, what made God happy in the laws was justice. What I mean by that was that while the first three commandments are about God, the last seven are about how we treat ourselves and others.

Before we can treat others well, we must first treat ourselves fairly: Sabbath. Sabbath is a rest day. It means we don’t work ourselves to death. We are no longer slaves and thus have leisure and happiness and reflection and freedom. Thus we are must be just with ourselves.

We treat those who brought us into the world with kindness and respect: honor your father and mother. Slaves have no mothers or fathers, they can be bought and sold and they have no property or children so those children can be bought and sold. There is no familial ties, only ties to your owners. Thus Moses recreates the family unit and teaches us to be kind and respectful to our parents. No religion before that time made kindness and respect at home a core tenant. Justice at home.

We honor the life of others: thou shalt not kill. We respect the lives of other beings no matter how we disagree. God gives us life and we do not take it away even if we can. God put people on earth for a reason and only God can take them away, it is unjust to kill and thus for the first time, killing is wrong. Justice with neighbors and life.

Thou shalt not commit adultery means justice to husband or wife. We do not disrespect our partner in life, we do not lie to them, we are just to all people around us, especially those with whom we live and share our lives with. This was also not a core tenant of other religions at the time as we know from the hedonism in Hellenistic world.  Justice with our spouse.

You shall not steal and you shall not lie are the 8th and 9th. We are to respect the labor of others and the property they have by that labor and we will not lie and cause them harm, even if we don’t like them. Justice is not about liking people, it is about treating each other fairly. Justice in our community.

It is clear that living this way is more difficult. It is clear that living like this makes enemies of those who do not agree with this way of life. It has cost Jewish people a lot, but it is also why we are one big family. It is why we trust each other and why I can have a shabbat dinner anywhere in the world.

Because those things are not easy, he outlines the leading cause of anger and injustice: coveting that which we do not have. And so the 10th commandment reminds us not to covet what others have, to be happy with what we have and to focus on ourselves, not what others have leading to the injustices.

Few understand how groundbreaking the ten commandments are to the entire world. You see, before the ten commandments, you could not trust others. You did not know if someone would steal or kill because each nation, each family, each religion, each person had a varying code of conduct. However, when Jews created this code for civilization and Christians adopted it and spread it around the world, a tectonic shift in the behavior of man was created. All of a sudden, as long as you were in a Judeo-Christian country, you knew the basis of justice, you know what people in that land felt was right and wrong and you could appeal to an authority just as Shylock does in Shakespeare’s the Merchant of Venice.

Now while Islam might seem similar as it was heavily influenced by Christianity and Judaism, the ten commandments are not a core of the Muslim tradition. In Islam, love and adherence to Muhammad is important and the rest of Sharia law does not have easily quantifiable and easy to remember laws with respect to treating of fellow man and woman. There is no clear bill of rights that ten commandments create. I believe this is the cause of many problems for Muslims around the world. This lack of clear cut societal norms caused problems in their relations with each-other as they battle sect against sect, family against family, country against country. It has caused them problems with other nations as they refuse to respect the property of Jewish people in Israel or other places. Because the sanctity of life is not ever present, because terrorism in itself is not evil, but only when misapplied to the wrong people, we see the problem with that as this mentality leaves killing up to interpretation. This means that when a sect sees another sect as bad in their minds, killing becomes ok, or with Jews or Christians, this belief that killing is a way to get honor or to solve disagreement has caused much blood to be shed. The moral sliding that is created by the ambiguity which does not exist in Judeo-Christian theology, is a big reason for the extra-judicial killings across the Muslim and non-Muslim world at the hands of religious fanatics who have no clause in their religion to stop them from killing others. So while Jews and Christians have a societal break for continuation of such event, because Muslim societal and religious model lack that clear cut break means some in their midst are against it and some are for, leading to ambiguity and continuation of violence as a means of resolution of disagreement.

And so we have this amazing system in the Jewish world when Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai, etched in religion and thus made immortal. Thus the Jews have this rich history engrained in Justice. So one would think that the people who are closest to our roots, those who are most Jewish, most proud, most religious would be the ones who stand up to injustice. And yet.. we see the opposite. The Hassidic community that run the slums in New York and Chicago are the most racist, xenophobic, sexist and homophobic and treat people and their property with contempt. The conservatives and religious right focus on the Shabbat but refuse to give liberty and freedom and do not treat Jews of color or anyone else with compassion and fairness. We see those who are the most religious in an old sense are least involved in the drive for fair immigration reform, racial equality, educational opportunity, women’s rights and respect for those who are born gay. We see them show contempt for those who do their utmost and who are just as religious but do it differently from them: the Conservative and Reform.

While traveling, I’ve seen Orthodox rabbis and scholars discount Reform and Conservative Jews as non-Jews which reminded me of Cain and Abel. Instead of looking at how we treat each other, they look at what they give to God. They are looking at the sacrifices for God, their prayers as the most important part of Judaism when in fact, in the Ten Commandments, there is no mention of prayers, just acknowledgement of God which Reform do no less differently than the Orthodox. The Orthodox I met often do not realize that idealizing God is in itself creating an idol when while it is the other seven commandments that are as important as the first three. In fact, they seem to focus most on just the four, with Shabbat being a sacrifice that they feel they do and the others do not when Shabbat is not a sacrifice, it is something that most of us already do in our own way ever since we created the 40 hour work week. There is no mention of synagogue or morning or evening services in the ten-commandments, just respecting the day and resting. Anything extra is a choice for each Jew and no Jew is better or worse than the other, otherwise we become covetous Cain and Abel seeking more or less from God, when life and family is all the happiness and blessing that we truly need from God.

So as the high holidays approach, lets remember our roots of justice and fairness. Let’s forget the ego and ask for forgiveness for mistreating our fellow people, Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Atheist. Let’s forget about the things that separate us because Moses did not see a difference between Egyptian attacking Jews and a Jew attacking Jew or man attacking man and man attacking man. What’s important is not that we like each other or agree with each other, but that we are just with each other.

May we all have a good story in the book of life, may we all treat each other with the respect that we all wish for.

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