When Is Stealing Acceptable?

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, July 28, 2023 / 10 Av 5783

Updates: Friends, I will be away the first two weeks of August. Oasis Songs will resume on August 17th.

Next Shabbat (August 4th) is a Meditation Shabbat. Dorice Horenstein, our congregant, life and business coach, and Jewish educator par excellence, will lead the short meditation unit of the service, including an introduction about the Jewish nature of her mindfulness practice. Dorice will also be leading our ongoing meditation practice group, Shevet,after services. As a reminder, Shevet starts about 35 minutes after the conclusion of Shabbat morning services, allowing people an opportunity to enjoy our kiddush lunch.

Summary: Can we apply the concept of cultural appropriation to the ancient world? Is there a start or stop date to when we can’t apply modern concepts? What are the different types of stealing that should concern us? Today’s Oasis Songs raises difficult questions as a way to practice our moral reasoning.

Reading Time: Five minutes

This past week, a dear friend of mine who is Muslim reminded me that this Shabbat coincides with the Islamic holiday of Ashura. For Sunni Muslims, Ashura commemorates the day that Musa (Moses) parted the Red Sea for the Israelites, using a staff that Allah (God) provided him, allowing the Israelites to escape their bondage to Pharaoh. Many Jews are probably unaware of when and how narratives from the Torah appear in the Koran, yet there are many such instances.

This sort of occurrence intrigues me because it allows us to reflect on certain current cultural assumptions and ideologies. One of the real gifts of being part of an ancient culture like ours is that it encompasses a much larger field of thought than any contemporary society normally permits, precisely because the traditions of Judaism have been recorded over thousands of years in many diverse settings. This gift allows us to step out of our own contemporary context so that we can examine our era’s thinking from many more angles.

For instance, ever since the 1980s, people have pondered what constitutes cultural appropriation; if I have my history correct, this discussion arose in the academic arena of colonialism, in which cultural appropriation was viewed through the lens of power. When a dominant culture is able to co-opt a piece of a minority’s culture without suffering consequences, this is considered cultural appropriation.

Using today’s thinking, should the Koran’s use of this older Biblical story be considered an example of cultural appropriation, cultural exchange and appreciation, or something else entirely? What about when Christians repurpose citations from the Hebrew scriptures in a way that completely disadvantages Jews? For example, Isaiah 11:10 speaks of the Root of Jesse, which for us Jews is a reference to King David and the messianic line. Yet in the Christian heritage, this is a harbinger to Jesus and a stripping away of Jewish culture and concepts that are some of the enduring roots of antisemitism.

This week’s Torah reading, Va’etchanan, contains a version of the Ten Commandments, which includes the prohibition against theft. Our sacred Jewish texts include a far-reaching conversation about what it means to steal. Indeed, the first sin in the Torah is an act of theft, after Adam and Eve steal and eat fruit that was forbidden to them. Also in the Ten Commandments is the mitzvah to honor one’s parents. Those who dishonor their parents are seen as stealing that respect from them. Murder, meanwhile, is the theft of life, and it would be possible to go through most of the remaining Ten Commandments to outline how they also represent different forms of theft.

A particularly profound understanding of theft in Judaism is genevat da’at, or deception, under which lying falls. Genevat da’at literally means “stealing the mind,” which is a powerfully poetic description of one of the most pernicious forms of theft. There are elaborate case studies of genevat da’at when it comes to the business world; creating unfair leverage through genevat da’at is simply unacceptable, yet it is a common matter in the contemporary business world.

It seems that cultural appropriation is a close cousin to the use of unfair leverage, as a party in a position of power uses that advantage to gain more power, leaving the underdog more disadvantaged. In case this column feels particularly removed from our daily concerns, let’s remember that museums around the world are still struggling with the question of when they need to return ancient artifacts to their countries of origin. In the United States, the Antiquities Act of 1906 made clear what theft of historic cultural icons was within America, but the world lacks a clear consensus of an equivalent ruling internationally. That means that it is difficult to determine whether some of the items in the British Museum, for example, were obtained by theft.

Ended here, this discussion might leave some readers scratching their heads. How is this pertinent to our lives? Yet the issues raised here are active in our society. Many times, meetings in Portland begin with a Land Acknowledgement; these are meant to render the invisible visible, reminding us of Native peoples who lived here before us, many of whom were forced from their homes or outright killed. Is a Land Acknowledgement an attempt to redress some form of cultural appropriation? When and how does it restore equity or undo past damages? Can it do so even if there are no tribal members alive today?

Questions like these, even if they are uncomfortable, allow us to wonder about something equivalent in our own Jewish context. Are we owed something by the two other Abrahamic faiths? Would we want any sort of acknowledgement from them? What would feel like tokenism and what would feel significant? I don’t have answers to any of these questions, and frankly, these questions unsettle me. Yet by shaking me up, they force me to consider the meaning of contemporary moral concepts while pondering how applicable or moral they are. Sometimes, it feels enough to be stirred or disturbed, for this, too, is a wake-up call. Haza’l—Our Sages of Blessed Memory—often deliberated on purely theoretical moral questions because they understood that by doing so, they would sharpen their own moral instincts for the real-life cases that would come their way. Maybe there is similar utility here?

Perhaps the questions embedded above can form part of your Shabbat Table Talk this week.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D

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