“Blessed are You, O Compassionate One, Who teaches Torah to His people, Israel.” (Morning Blessing)
My parents were progressive social activists who were not afraid to challenge governments and rulers that they felt were acting unjustly. Due to my radical upbringing, I was later able to appreciate the following Torah teaching: Human rulers are not the ultimate sovereigns, as above them is the Sovereign of the Universe - the Source of all justice and truth.
My Torah study led me to understand that when we acknowledge the Divine sovereignty, we are acknowledging the sovereignty of the Divine justice and truth. From a traditional Jewish perspective, this formed the moral basis for the Nuremberg trials in Germany after World War II, when the Allies created a court to judge the Nazi murderers. The Nazis argued: “Why should we be put on trial for actions which were considered legal and moral in our own country?” The traditional Jewish response is that there are higher and absolute Divine values and laws that all human beings must acknowledge. I therefore want to share with you the following story of how a bright group of Jewish children rediscovered this Torah message:
About twenty five years ago, about a week before Shavuos – the Festival which celebrates the giving of the Torah – I was asked to serve as a substitute teacher in a Sunday School for pre-teens run by a Reform temple in New Jersey, a state in the U.S.A. which is across the river from Manhattan, New York City. I was working then as the director of the Martin Steinberg Center of the American Jewish Congress – a center for Jewish artists which was located in Manhattan and which was quite a distance from the school; thus, a teacher at the school who lived in Manhattan offered to pick me up at my office and drive me there. When I arrived, the principal greeted me in a friendly manner, but he warned me that the students were quite wild. He promised, however, that he would come to visit the class to see if I needed to be rescued!
When I walked in the classroom, I noticed their bright faces, and the “Compassionate One Who teaches Torah to His people, Israel” gave me an idea of how to reach them. Before they could get restless, I told them that today, we are going to have a courtroom trial. I then told them about the Nuremberg trials and the related moral issues. I asked for volunteers who would present arguments as to why the Nuremberg trials should take place, and I also asked for volunteers who would present the arguments of the Nazis as to why the allies had no right to put them on trial. I told the class that after hearing the arguments, they would discuss the issues among themselves, and they would serve as a jury that would make the final decision. The room became electrified! The debate began, and it was followed by a lively group discussion. Although these students did not come from traditional Jewish homes, they still had the traditional Jewish passion for discussing and debating ideas in the search for truth. The rabbi suddenly walked in, perhaps to see if I needed to be rescued, and I noticed his amazement when he saw the students were enthusiastically involved in discussing moral principles. The class then voted unanimously that the allies had a right to put the Nazis on trial, since there are higher, absolute values and laws that all human beings must acknowledge.
After the vote, I spoke to the students about the approaching Festival of Shavuos which commemorates the Divine Revelation of higher, absolute values and laws, and I proclaimed : You now understand the deeper meaning of Shavuos and the Divine message that went forth from Mount Sinai. Their faces suddenly lit up, and one could sense the pride they now felt in being part of the people that stood at Sinai.
The Torah portion of next Shabbos tells the story of the Divine Revelation at Sinai. And when the words of this story are chanted in the synagogue, I will remember those students at the Sunday School.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
A Related Teaching:
According to Jewish tradition, there is a universal moral code that the Creator gave to humankind at the dawn of human history, and one of the basic precepts of this code is the prohibition against murder. Maimonides, in his classical work, Mishneh Torah, explains that this universal moral code was reaffirmed with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. (The Laws of Kings 8:11). The Divine Revelation at Sinai is therefore a reminder that there is a higher Divine truth which all human beings need to acknowledge.