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Mishpatim: Is Religion Still Relevant?

From Where I Stand

By Rabbi Yossy Goldman

Cyberspace, outer space, inner space. Genome maps, globalization, going to Mars. Smart cards, smart bombs, stem cells, cell phones. There is no denying it. We live in a new age. Science fiction has become scientific fact. And the question is asked: In this new world order, with science and technology changing the way we live, is religion still relevant? Do we still need to subscribe to an ancient and seemingly long obsolete code of laws when we are so further advanced than our ancestors?

This question reminds me of little old Hymie Levy of London who somehow found himself attending a cocktail party in the company of aristocracy. Poor Hymie was completely out of place mingling with the lords and ladies of British royalty and high society. One duchess was so irritated by this ordinary Jew’s presence that she confronted him directly. Oozing sarcasm, in her finest elocution, she let on to Hymie, “Did you know that my family traces its lineage back to the very people who were personally present at the signing of the Magna Carta!” Hymie Levy was unfazed. He gave a little shrug of his shoulders and whispered straight into the ear of Her Haughtiness, “Un mein Zayde Moishe vos poisonally present by de giving of de Tzen Commendments!”

Have the Ten Commandments passed their sell-by date? Are atheism, murder, adultery, thievery, lying, and jealousy out of fashion? Notwithstanding all our marvelous medical and scientific developments, has human nature itself really changed? Are not the very same moral issues that faced our ancestors still challenging our own generation? Whether it’s an oxcart or a Mercedes, road rage is a reality and courteous coexistence is still a choice we must make. Looking after aged parents is not a new problem. Whether it was Adam and Eve or Michael and Sheryl, the grass somehow always seems greener on the other side. For some inexplicable reason, the other guy’s wife, house, horse, or Porsche still seems more attractive and desirable than our own.

The very same issues dealt with in the Bible—sibling rivalry, jealous partners, and even murder—are still the stuff of newspaper headlines today. So what else is new? Has anything changed? Yes, today we have astronauts and space stations, laser beams, and laptops, but the basic issues and choices human beings must face remain identical. Once upon a time the question was “Do I hit him with my club or slice him up with my sword?” Today the question is “Do I call up the nuclear submarines or send in the guided missiles?” Technology has developed in leaps and bounds. Fantasies of yesterday are reality today. Communication, automation, and globalization have altered our lives dramatically. But the core issues, the basic moral dilemmas, have not changed one iota. We still struggle with knowing the difference between right and wrong, moral or immoral, ethical or sneaky, and not even the most souped-up computer on earth is able to answer those questions for us.

Science and technology can do wonders for humankind. But they can also blow us all to kingdom come faster than Attila the Hun could have ever imagined. Science and technology answer how and what. They do not address the question of why. Why are we here in the first place? Why should I be nice to my neighbor? Why should my life be nobler than my pet Doberman’s? Science and technology have unraveled many mysteries that puzzled us for centuries. But they have not answered a single moral question. Only Torah addresses the moral minefield—as it does repeatedly in the civic and social laws contained in this parashah.

And those issues are perhaps more pressing today than ever before in history. Torah is truth, and truth is eternal. Scenarios come and go. Lifestyles change with the geography. The storylines are different but the gut-level issues are all too familiar. If we ever needed religion—or in our language, Torah—we need it equally today, and maybe more so.

May we continue to find moral guidance and clarity in the eternal truths of our holy and eternally relevant Torah. Amen. v

Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.

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Posted by on February 7, 2013. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.