Excerpted from With Liberty and Justice: The Fifty-Day Journey from Egypt to Sinai by Senator Joe Lieberman with Rabbi Ari D. Kahn, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books
In the Bible, immediately after the Ten Commandments are handed down, God teaches Moses laws about building the sacrificial altar, and then tells him to place ordinances before the Israelites.
Over the centuries, the commentators have explored the significance of this sequence – from the big principles of the Ten Commandments, to the architectural specifications of building the altar, to the details of civil and criminal law. The rabbis draw this primary lesson: God does not want there to be a separation between religion and everyday life, or between ritual obligations and ethical behavior. The profound moral norms of the Ten Commandments and the spirituality of the altar must inform every aspect of how we conduct our lives. In other words, God’s Law is meant to be pervasive and to infuse all elements of our existence with holiness. The prophets make clear that God places greater value on ethical social behavior than on strict ritual observance that ignores the needs of others. Isaiah makes this point beautifully:
When you spread your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you – because your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves, purify yourselves, remove the evil of your doings from before My eyes…. Learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the victim, do justice for the orphan, take up the cause of the widow. (Is. 1:15–17)
In general, Scripture repeatedly reminds us what our priorities should be in making this kind of personal judgment, as in I Samuel 15:22: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in hearkening to the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than to sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.”
One striking example, taught by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, concerns Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.11In Temple times, the most important person on this day was the High Priest, who performed the rituals of repentance in the innermost sanctum of the Temple. In preparation for this awesome responsibility, the High Priest
was removed from his regular tasks for days; he was even separated from his wife for a full week. However, if the High Priest happened upon a corpse on the eve of Yom Kippur (of a person who, for various reasons, no one else will bury), notwithstanding the prohibition against priests touching a dead body, he would be obligated to defile himself and see to it that the deceased received a dignified burial. In this dramatic example, human dignity triumphs over ritual, even though the beneficiary would never know about the kindness that had been extended to him. In sum, the Law itself allows for exceptions, in circumstances where strict observance would clash with ethical behavior.