Introducing “Sacred Slogans”

Sacred Slogans

I am excited to launch a new series in which I will analyze what I call “Sacred Slogans.” By “Sacred Slogans,” I refer to phrases or idioms from Torah which have been appropriated to promote various agendas.1 Like all slogans, these are pithy, memorable, and easily repeatable. But slogans which are taken from sacred texts are automatically infused with the cultural weight of religious authority.

Sacred Slogans fit neatly into the three-part formula of the modern rabbinate:

  1. Identify a source from canonical literature.
  2. Claim a position corresponds to the cited material.
  3. Conclude that supporting the cause constitutes fulfilling divine will, and is thus a religious mandate for its practitioners.

This formula works best with the more generic statements because they allow for greater interpretive license.

Consider “tzedek tzedek tirdof” or “justice, justice you shall pursue.”2 This wonderfully general three-word exhortation to do “justice” is a particularly useful since all one needs to do is claim their cause or position is “just” in order to claim Biblical authority. Without needing any further justification, the mere assertion of righteousness alone is sufficient for any policy to be elevated to a religious obligation.

However, for those who care about accuracy and honesty, defining what “justice” actually means is hardly a simple matter. This is not only a subject of much debate among legal theorists and philosophers, but Torah has its own system of justice, one which is painstakingly dissected over hundreds of pages of Talmud and thousands more of commentary.3 Studying all these texts takes much time, effort, and skill, and in doing so one may come to a conclusion with which one disapproves. It is far easier to simply cry “justice” and pretend one’s preferred policies are divine will.

Religious sloganeering is not a new phenomenon, though more people are gradually becoming aware of it. R. Jeffrey Salkin succinctly describes this phenomenon:

The problem with this has less to do with what liberal Jews say about these matters than with how such Jews justify their positions. They tend to attach Jewish texts to the issues at hand, and to do so sloppily….In citing Jewish texts to bolster political stances, liberal Jews too rarely unpack what these texts meant in their original context. More rarely still do they admit to stretching their original meanings.”

I must add to R. Salkin that sloganeering is by no means limited to liberal Jews or liberal causes; right-wing parochial rabbis have invoked their own sacred slogans for their own causes for at least just as long.4

But the liberals who employ sacred slogans risk betraying their own liberalism. Some of the same rabbis who challenge established orthodoxies – if not the very concept of a religious orthodoxy – reject multivalenced nuance when it comes to their preferred causes. Those who invoke sacred slogans are not claiming to hold a valid opinion but the definitive understanding, to which all Jews ought to comply. The pluralistic tropes of “70 faces of Torah” and “these and those are the words of the living God” or the romanticization of an ever evolving understanding of the “living Torah” miraculously fall by the wayside as the need arises.

In other words, the rich tapestry of Jewish interpretation is worth exploring only when it challenges the orthodoxies of other establishments, never one’s own.5

Methodology and Goals

In unpacking the meaning of the sacred slogans, I will generally be focusing on Biblical and Rabbinic sources. In my religious tradition, Biblical and Rabbinic sources are not just chronological manifestations of religion, but they are Torah, referred to as the “written” and “oral” Torah respectively, with the latter representing the authoritative interpretive tradition of the Bible.6 These are the authoritative sources of Torah, later opinions would be interpretations subject to evaluation.

I recognize people weigh the authority of sources differently, particularly when it comes to later opinions, some of which are treated as sources in their own right. But even if the canonical sources of the Bible and Talmud do not carry the same weight of authority for others, minimally they are indisputably legitimate as being canonical sources such that we may include them in the range of valid opinions to evaluate the Sacred Slogans.7 

My purpose is not necessarily to critique the merits any specific religious or secular policy, but to correct what I consider misrepresentations of Torah in the pursuit of these policies or some other well-intended goal. There is a world of difference between saying a policy is consistent with Torah and a policy is mandated by Torah such that Jews are religiously bound to support it as reflective of God’s will. This is particularly true when Torah itself contradicts the desired outcome.

Torah does not only care about the result, but that one reaches it with integrity. To return to the idiom of “justice,” M. Avot 5:8 teaches that the punishment of the sword comes to the world for the sins of delaying justice, perverting justice, and teaching Torah not in accordance with the law. I understand this to mean that all are of equal importance, and that “justice” which comes at the expense of distorting Torah cannot be the justice of Torah.

My goal in this series is to reintroduce inconvenient sources into the conversation and challenge the dogmas perpetuated by these accepted Sacred Slogans. I make no claims to being comprehensive and omissions are inevitable. However, the sources I do cite should be enough to demonstrate the complexity of the subjects covered. And if the entries in this series are inadequate representations of the issues, then so are the Sacred Slogans themselves.

I acknowledge the quixotic nature of this project. Those who are personally invested in a  particular perspective will be reticent to change their minds, and it will always be easier to perpetuate a simplistic slogan than to study the sources.8

Still, I believe that there are Jews who, like myself, are frustrated with Torah being appropriated and distorted for agendas. I also believe there are political and religious activists who are as committed to intellectual integrity as much as they are to their causes and recognize that need not be sacrificed in the name of the other. Even those who do not change their positions after reading these essays may appreciate incorporating the sources and nuances which have been ignored (or in some cases suppressed) and refine their statements to be more reflective of Torah.

I would like to thank Dena Schupper for her amazing work editing these posts. Any residual mistakes or ambiguities are my own.

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  1. The phenomenon of Sacred Slogans can easily be applied to other religions and their respective religious texts, but I am limiting my scope to Judaism and Jewish sources for obvious reasons.
  2. Deut. 16:20
  3. Even though tzedek tzedek tirdof would be an excellent Sacred Slogan to cover, its scope is far too exhaustive for me to cover beyond the generalizations mentioned here.
  4. I covered one such example in my class on “Tzniut / Modesty.”
  5. While I will not be spending as much time on this point, it is also worth noting that the same rabbis who protest religious coercion have no compunction advocating for the state to enforce Jewish values, at least as selected and understood by them.
  6. When relevant to practical applications, I prioritize halakhic/legal statements over the aggadic/homiletical statements and understand the latter in light of the former. This approach follows B. Bava Batra 130b and Y. Pe’ah 2:4 17d
  7. Some may contest that meanings are always subject to evolution and there is always a valence of interpretations, but according to this relativistic approach, all Sacred Slogans would be inherently invalid since they promote a single understanding as an objective truth. I address the limits of pluralism in interpretation in a later entry in this series.
  8. There is only so much text which can fit on a protest sign or tweet.
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