By Dr. Theodore Steinberg
“Utopia” is a funny word—intentionally. It is based on two Greek words, “ou” and “topos,” that together mean “no place,” but in a Greek pun, it is also based on “eu” and “topos,” which means “a good place.” So “utopia” actually means “a good place which is no place.” The idea was created by Thomas More for his 1519 masterpiece Utopia, a response of sorts to Erasmus’ work Moriae Encomium, usually translated as The Praise of Folly but which also means The Praise of More, who was Erasmus’ close friend. Those Renaissance humanists sure knew how to have fun.
Of course, The Praise of Folly and Utopia are two classics of Renaissance literature whose significances transcend their time. While both authors were deeply steeped in the religious life of their day, neither was a Torah scholar, but More’s work in particular is relevant to this week’s combined parashiyot of Behar and Bechukotai.
And how is a sixteenth-century Latin treatise by a devout Roman Catholic relevant to the Torah? Following More, many authors have written utopian works (like William Morris’ News from Nowhere or Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, which is almost “nowhere” spelled backwards) and dystopian works (like Brave New World and 1984). What we do not often consider is that the Torah, which came long before More, is itself a utopian work, in the best sense of that term. It is, after all, the constitution of the Jewish people, and, as such, it is an attempt to create an ideal society, to create a society in which, for example, the rights of all are protected, in which the weak are protected from the strong but in which the strong are also guaranteed justice, in which every life is treasured, in which nature and the environment are valued. We may have reservations about certain of its provisions that reflect the customs of a different time and place, but we need to look beyond those specifics to the spirit that animates them.
For instance, two topics in this week’s readings are the sabbatical year and slavery. The sabbatical year, whether we think it practical or not, teaches us that we must respect the natural world rather than exploiting it, as we far too often do. And the section on slavery may particularly trouble us, as we consider slavery a revolting practice. Nonetheless, we must realize that in earlier times slavery was universally accepted. What the Torah does that is remarkable is to put limits on slavery, to make it, to the extent that such a thing is possible, humane, and to indicate that it would be better if it were not practiced. We may not be happy with that approach, but such an approach should lead ultimately to abolition.
So the Torah, as exemplified in these readings, is indeed an attempt to create a “good place,” an ideal society. But what about the other part of that pun? The Torah describes an “eu topos,” a good place. Unfortunately, it is still “ou topos,” no place, because we have not yet been able to live up to either the letter or the spirit of the Torah. One of the lessons of this week’s readings, then, is that we need to try harder.
Dr. Theodore (Ted) Steinberg is a former Distinguished Teaching Professor at Fredonia, State University of New York and is an active member with his wife Phyllis of Kehillat Ohr Tzion.