I’m that grown-up who jumps to catch a kid who is about to fall off a playground slide, even if the kid isn’t mine. I’m saying, “Hey, be careful! You don’t want to hurt your bum,” or whatever concern is applicable. Some feel I’m overprotective. Rather than using unkind words like “hovering,” I prefer “proactive worrier.”
I felt isolated with this habit. Then I got to know the contractors for our home renovation better. The brothers who worked for us were also parents. They did everything possible to keep kids, dog and parents safe as they worked on the house with us living in it. The older brother, the electrician, would spell out exactly which hazards he was trying to avoid. He would close a door, put up a sign saying “Please stay out” or another proactive way to avoid problems. The day they installed a big new bathtub was a good example. After caulking it, the tub was filled with water to weigh it down and create a good seal. We knew the kids and dog would be very tempted to check it out – we imagined kids falling in in their clothing, playing with rubber duckies, a dog jumping in and flooding the room. We strategized how to keep everyone away from the tub until the caulk hardened.
I was surprised when I started studying Bava Kamma, a Babylonian talmudic tractate dedicated to civil law, particularly the law of damages and compensation owed. In “fancy” legal vocabulary, this is tort law, which “provides damages to victims in compensation for their losses.” The rabbis of the Talmud thought through these issues. They used examples from their day. They talked about oxen that gored, camels that fell (and caused a stumbling block) and other unpredictable situations. I’d heard sermons where people laughed about this level of detail, but my brain returned to those playground moments. Perhaps others don’t take these examples seriously because they’ve never interacted with large, stubborn livestock or a fussy, heavy toddler or two.
Here’s an example of a question posed in a baraita in Bava Kamma 29: “If one’s jug broke and he did not remove its shards, or if his camel fell and he did not stand it up, Rabbi Meir deems him liable to pay for any damage they cause. The rabbis say that he is exempt according to human laws, but liable according to the laws of Heaven.” So, the understanding is, if you create a dangerous situation, you’re obligated to clean it up. If you don’t clean it up, you’re still responsible for it. You’re guilty even if you don’t owe money as compensation.
Examples like these keep popping up. This tractate is a Jewish rabbinic lesson in taking responsibility for our actions. How might something we do harm someone? What if it’s an accident, like dropped pottery? What if you purposely left broken glass or pottery that could harm others?
This ancient rabbinic text can seem dry, as law texts might be, but also relevant. In the last few days, many communities have started to use law as an excuse to exclude public acknowledgement or celebration of Hanukkah. Moncton, N.B., made a name for itself in this way. A Hanukkah candlelighting has been customary there for 20 years. Suddenly, this year, the mayor and council felt it interfered with the separation of church and state. They canceled the event, although Moncton City Hall decorates with angels, a Christmas tree and wreaths. A last-minute petition with many opposing voices succeeded in forcing a new vote that overturned this decision, so the menorah and candlelighting were reinstated.
Other communities wrestling with this include Williamsburg, in my home state of Virginia. Organizers there suggested that a menorah lighting couldn’t be allowed unless it was under a “ceasefire now” banner. In Britain, a London town council reversed their decision to cancel a public menorah lighting after an outcry. Back in Canada, in Calgary, Alta., the mayor canceled her attendance at the city’s public menorah lighting.
Suddenly, the rabbis’ detailed discussions in Bava Kamma make more sense. Their debates explore when someone is wronged by accident, and if they owed compensation. However, they also include the question of responsibility when someone is wronged “on purpose.” For example, when a government uses the law to suppress a minority religious observance, like Hanukkah. When this kind of action takes place, it does harm. It does harm beyond whether Jews are legally allowed to light a hanukkiyah in a public place. The message it sends causes bigger damage and fear.
After all, if Jews in Canada or the United States aren’t allowed to publicly celebrate their religious rituals, it feels unsafe to be Jewish in these places. Where is it safe? Most Jews would then think about Israel as being the place where it’s truly safe to be Jewish. The people who want to withdraw public observance of Jewish traditions due to the Israel/Hamas war send a message to Jews living in North America – it’s not OK with them to have a Jewish homeland in Israel. It’s also not OK with them for Jews to observe their religion openly here. They probably missed the irony, as their message is that it’s especially not OK when the Jewish holiday is about religious freedom.
Laws about compensation for damages can sound uninteresting. It becomes more intriguing when imagining an unsafe play structure, a broken piece of pottery or a camel that won’t budge. It gets even more pertinent – and uncomfortable – when the law is used to keep us from celebrating our religious traditions freely, in public, without fear, in a democracy.
While Hanukkah is ending, it’s still the time of year when many indulge in more sweets and tortes than we’d planned. Sadly, it’s a different kind of tort this year, one where we consider how to compensate for the potential loss of religious freedom.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.