The Torah on Privilege
As American society wrestles with its history of criminal injustice, a classic piece of rabbinic commentary on this week’s portion contains penetrating wisdom for us.
Parashat Nasso contains the beloved Birkat Kohanim (priestly blessing), that we recite in prayer and offer to our children on Friday nights. “May God bless you and protect you. May God make God’s face shine upon you and be gracious with you. May God ‘lift God’s face’ toward you and grant you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26)
The Rabbis must have loved these powerful images of divine love and blessing. But they raise a logical and moral challenge about the words “lift God’s face toward you,” also translated as, “May God bestow God’s favor upon you.”
Elsewhere in the Torah (Deuteronomy 10:17), we are told that no undue favor is to be granted to one person over another. Using the same language, one verse says, “Bestow God’s favor!” and the other says, “Do not bestow God’s favor!” The Rabbis are essentially saying, “Of course we’d love to receive divine blessing. But the Torah insists that the administration of justice (and divine love?) be shared equally, without special privileges afforded to some and not to others. How do we deal with the contradiction?
The commentators offer different answers to the question. Rav Avira essentially replies, “How could God not give special consideration to Israel, who are so grateful for God’s gifts?” (Talmud Berachot 20b) Rabbi Yehoshu’a ben Hananiah says that the command not to confer privilege refers to the time of a court case, prior to the verdict; the verse in which God offers special love applies after the verdict. (Talmud Niddah 70b) Yet another answer: God offers preferential love at times of prayer, but not in the administration of justice. (Midrash Sifrei)
What is strangely missing from all of this rabbinic discussion is the context of the verse in Deuteronomy 10, which cautions against unequal treatment in matters of justice. The text says, “God … the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing them with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)
We are told unequivocally that it is God’s essence to show no favor and take no bribe, but then we are told whom God decidedly does prefer. God privileges the orphan, the widow and the stranger — the marginalized, the oppressed, the poor and those seen as the “other.”
There is no pretense here about God’s partiality. God gives special favor to precisely those whom society tends to demean, hate and dehumanize. And we — who were strangers in the land of Egypt — must do the same.
Honestly, I am untroubled by the promise of universal love in our verse, “May God lift God’s face toward you.” The God that I worship loves all of creation with an expansive and undiscriminating love. Much as parents exude passionate love for their children, God, our Creator, overflows with boundless love for us. This is a quality of love the Torah repeatedly calls us to emulate.
In the context of the justice system, the Torah actually tells us something similar: Do not favor the rich over the poor. Do not allow the justice system to be impacted by corrupt human preferences. Fashion social systems that serve as instruments of God’s love and justice in the world, applied equitably across all markers of identity.
But when you must discriminate, do so in favor of the marginalized, those whom God loves with a special love.
I see no contradiction between the call for universal love in our verse and the call for impartial justice in Deuteronomy. Both flow from the same principle that all of us are loved by the One. To make this love real in the public sphere, we must right the boundless wrongs that have been done to the impoverished, the disadvantaged and the despised.
After hundreds, even thousands, of years of differential treatment of the wealthy and the privileged in human societies, we must finally emulate the Divine model to offer compensatory favor to those who have been wronged.
We have all heard the word “privilege” a lot in recent years. The word may sound new and jarring. But it is ancient. Privileging the oppressed to right social wrongs is precisely what God demands of us.
First published at the J Weekly, 5/21/21, https://www.jweekly.com/2021/05/21/the-torah-has-a-lot-to-say-about-privilege/.