Extra Devarim commentary — published by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights

T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call For Human Rights
Words and Deeds

A d’var Torah for Parashat Devarim and Tisha B’Av by Rabbi Denise Handlarski

Last year at this time, we were hearing the distressing news of the conflict in Gaza. Coinciding with Tisha B’av, which this year occurs in the week to come, Jews everywhere were mourning, and beginning to argue with aching hearts about Israel, and about justice.

Parashat Devarim begins with Moses addressing “all Israel.” Rashi suggests this is so all of the community knows what has been spoken and is included. No one should be exempt or set apart because the community is responsible for ensuring that everyone follows the same rules — everyone is responsible for everyone. I am a rabbi in the Humanistic Jewish movement, and we believe strongly in the power of self-responsibility and actualization, but also the value of community. We need to take ownership of our own behaviour, but are we also responsible for the behaviour of our fellow Jews? Not all of them, not literally. However, our behaviour as Jews does reflect upon one another, even when we disagree. And we often do.

I, like many others, feel proud when I see Jews standing up for just causes. I feel they are somehow representing me and what I perceive to be the most important Jewish values – tzedakah and tikkun olam. Yet, I am embarrassed when Jews speak as Jews, often speaking as though on behalf of all Jews, when they advocate for policies and governments that are harmful. When Shmuley Boteach speaks as “America’s rabbi” against the Palestinians, or when Benjamin Netanyahu says he speaks for all Jews and then uses anti-Palestinian rhetoric as a tool for re-election, I cringe. When rabbis and community leaders claim halachic authority or appeal to “tradition” to speak against rights for women and for LGBTQ people, I scowl. The challenge is that when I speak out for justice, it is as a Jew as well as a concerned human being in the world. But I do not and cannot speak for everyone.

Last year, I was sometimes proud and sometimes horrified at how members of my Jewish community spoke about Israel, about Palestine, and about the ongoing conflict. There were moments when I heard other Jews – colleagues and friends even – calling for or justifying terrible violence. When the Jewish voice sounds hateful, it is hard to understand how we can conceptualize ourselves as one people, one voice. But we hold the dream of Am Israel in our hearts. We value the concepts of nationhood and peoplehood, even as we struggle with them.

Tisha B’av gives us the chance to speak about destruction and rebuilding. What we have lost, but also – crucially – how we have evolved. The Talmud tells us (Yoma 9b) that the Second Temple was destroyed because Sin’at Chinam (groundless hatred) was endemic to our people. We have both perpetrated hatred amongst one another and towards other cultures, and we have certainly been the recipients of groundless hatred throughout the ages. It is always my hope that Jews, having experienced the terrible effects of anti-Semitism, will stand up for other marginalized groups. I grew up in a South African Jewish community, and I was always perplexed when Jews could support racist apartheid practices and rhetoric as though their own experiences had taught them nothing. Groundless hatred has harmed us, yet we sometimes hate and harm as well. Some Jews feel the pain of the past, the many calamities inflicted on Jews for which we mourn, and they resort to feelings of vengeance and violence. They become the purveyors of baseless hatred. On Tisha B’av, we need to reflect on the prejudices we carry within us, and we need to concern ourselves with the losses of our own people and the losses of others. We need to take the lessons of Jewish history and apply them to our present day – where is there hatred and how can we stop it? Where is there destruction and how can we foster creation?

We are all entitled to our own independent views. But what Jews say to the broader public reflects on other Jews, and so it is important to be thoughtful about how we represent Judaism and its values. Although we can understand how the wounds of anti-Semitism can lead to a wish for retribution, we must not succumb to the politics of hate. We redeem ourselves and one another when we offer each other mirrors and models of ethical, just, and loving behaviour. We have a responsibility, like the Jews at Sinai, to watch out for each other. “All Israel” needed to be present for the guidelines of how to live as a people in its own land. We should seek that kind of presence for and with one another, even when we disagree.

Originally published in the e-newsletter Torah from T’ruah.

Devarim – on Moses, on meta-textuality, and on membership in a group

Deutoronomy is not so much a new book as a recapitulation and commentary on the other books. Its introduction in Parshat Devarim introduces Moses as addressing the people. Following from Numbers it is clear that Moses is just outside the land. It is clear that Moses cannot really be the narrative voice of Deuteronomy, as some of what is included in the text could only be known by a later writer. Moses also needs to narrate the details of his own death at the end of Deuteronomy, something most agree suggests anachronism and conflation. The position of the narrative voice, is only one of the narrative details that make the book confusing. Devarim goes over some of the “historical” details from Numbers – how many Israelites died in the desert, some of the battles fought, etc. In some cases the versions match, and in others there are changes. We can account for these changes in a number of ways. 

Above I put scare quotes around the term “historical” because Humanistic Jews believe the Torah is more of a literary document than a historical one. Following the information we have gleaned over recent decades through archaeology, we know that the story of the Exodus, and the related incidents and vignettes about it, likely did not happen. The history we can find through reading Torah, however, is the history of its writing, compilation and redaction – which tells us about who our people were and how their communities transformed. Deuteronomy was likely intended to stand alone – to replace the other biblical books. It was likely never intended to be the fifth in a series (why else would it go over and change earlier stories?) The Deutoronomistic istory (typically viewed as presented through the books of Joshua – 2 Kings), wants to provide a summary of the stories that give rise to a peoplehood in the hopes of solidifying this peoplehood. This is particularly important as these writers compose post-exile, and know that foreign powers can threaten their community. Deuteronomy, therefore, attempts to solidify the people, not so much through the adherence of people to land, but rather adherence of the people to God. In Devarim, Moses is speaking to the people about how they could/should have reached the land but didn’t trust enough in God to win their battles with enemies. He reminds that Yahweh had to kill the entire desert generation (strikingly, he notes almost simultaneously that the people should trust Yahweh to protect them, even while he attributes their demise to the “hand of God”).  

What we find in Devarim, the parshah and the book, is a curious and careful interplay between history and fiction. The writers come much later than those who wrote the other books of Torah. In attributing their words to Moses, they play with the idea of narrativity. Moses has been the speaker of the bible in other books, thus they pseudepigraphically assign Devarim to him as well in order to preserve tradition. Preserving tradition is the main thrust of the book, after all. The audience for it is even more connected with Moses than before; just as they might be outside the Promised Land in exile, so too was Moses denied entry. There is an interesting moment in the parshah when Moses claims that God is angry with him because he is angry with the people for their rebellion and cowardice in the desert (1.37). In Numbers, Moses’ own failings result in Yahweh’s anger. Here, however, we have a revision. Why? Perhaps to signal that Moses is the people’s leader, not a figure to be viewed in and of himself; if the people fail, so does he. There is a comment here on leadership and on community. No one person can or should define the people. Rather, the people are responsible for staying true to the laws and stories of the biblical books, as represented in this one. The Jewish Study Bible’s introduction to Deuteronomy puts all of this beautifully:

“The modernity of Deuteronomy is that it does not permit itself to be read literally or passively. It challenges its readers actively to confront the problem of the relation between divine revelation and human interpretation, even as it breaks down the conventional boundaries between Scripture and tradition. It makes paradox central to its structure. As the book narrates the story of its formation, it also anticipates its prior existence as a complete literary work” (361). 

Deuteronomy is, because of its literary self-consciousness, an important book for Humanistic Jews. It calls attention to itself as a work of literature, and it struggles over whether to place authority with the human or the divine. Ultimately, it uses divinity to unite humanity – something which, in a very theistic world, was quite a Humanistic move.  

Today we no longer need divinity to unite us as a community or to provide us with legitimacy in our own authority. Just as the writers of Torah did, we find the stories that lend our lives meaning, and we take on the task of being their interpreters. We also find ways of bringing community together and holding onto our Jewish identities, individually and communally, just as the writers of Devarim wanted to find ways to do. The Torah has never been a static document, but rather has transformed according to the needs and desires of the people for whom it is meant to guide and inspire. Humanistic Jews are part of this beautiful and dynamic process. Just as there is a meta-literary aspect to Devarim, as the text seems conscious of itself as a text, so too is there a meta-literary aspect to a Humanistic response to Devarim, as we interpret the text that is, in many ways, about who has the authority to interpret. 

The name for this biblical book and its first parshah, Devarim, like other biblical books, is taken from an important word in the first line. This book/parasha begins “these are the words” of Moses’ address to the people. Although the line is typically translated this way, the word devarim in Hebrew means “the sayings” (related to the word “medaber” which means speak). The word “devarim” also means things and even actions. Humanistic Jews believe strongly that our words and actions should align. Words are, in a sense, things and actions. They have tangible effects and consequences. One of the reasons Jews find our communities is because prayer might not hold significance for them, and to recite prayers in which one does not believe is to denigrate the self, those who do believe those words, and the words themselves. More consistent with an ethical viewpoint is to find words that do carry meaning, which is what our communities can provide. The book of Deuteronomy literally puts words in Moses’ mouth, but we should beware that it, and other biblical and traditional books, need not put words in our own. Just as we possess the authority to interpret text, we possess the authority to determine which texts provide meaning, which recitations we deem beautiful enough to turn into liturgy, and which words are consistent with our beliefs and actions. 

This parshah shows Moses speaking to “all” the people. Rashi notes that this is so that all of the community knows what has been spoken and is included. The idea is that no one should be exempt or set apart from the rules or rebukes Moses offers. Indeed, much of what he says in this parshah is a rebuke. Even though the desert generation has died out, Moses addresses the people in the second person when describing their lack of faith, bravery, and will to make it to the Promised Land. This resonates with earlier ideas in the bible about how future generations carry the sins of their fathers, but it is broader than that. The idea is that all the people are subject to the same rules and practices and all the people are responsible for each other. Humanistic Jews are individualists but also know the value of community. We absolutely need to take ownership of our own behaviour, but are we also responsible for the behaviour of our fellow and sister Jews? Not all of them, not literally. But I have often noted we celebrate Jews of note, those who have made significant contributions to their field/the world (i.e. “Did you know that astronaut/novelist/scientist/humanitarian is Jewish?). But we do not do the same with Jews of notoriety (one never hears “Did you know that criminal/embezzler/fraudster was Jewish?). Why do we feel that the accomplishments of Jews reflect well on us, but the failures of Jews do not reflect badly? What is our relationship as individuals to the broader Jewish community? It is not my contention that we should bear responsibility for the choices others make. But I do believe we have a responsibility, like the Jews at Sinai, for watching out for each other, for creating opportunities for one another to be educated, and to do good (and not just for other Jews – for the community at large), and for being models of ethical, just, and loving behaviour. We need not be perfect (what kind of a model is perfection? A model must be possible to emulate). But it is useful to consider the nexus between self and other in terms of how we see our place in our Jewish community, our cities/countries, and our world. This is the interpretation of Moses’ address that I, and I hope other Humanistic Jews, find meaningful. 

Mattot – Mase’ei – on women, on worship, and on war

 In case we were feeling emboldened and empowered by the upholding of Zelophedad’s daughters’ request for inheritance in last week’s parshah, this week we are reminded that a woman under the care of her father or husband (this includes most women except for widows and very few who remain unmarried after their fathers die) are often subservient to them. Vows made to God are considered unbreakable, however women’s vows can be annulled by their husband and father and are also considered breakable if made without the husband or father’s consent. We are reminded that women have very little power in this society. Zelophedad’s daughters are revisited in this parshah. A concern is raised about their inheritance rights leading to land being transferred to another tribe should they choose to marry. Thus they are told they can marry only within their own tribe – highlighting that the control of women has not subsided, but perhaps has been further heightened, in spite of their successful legal claim.The rest of the parshah deals with warring between the Israelites and the Midianites. A continuation of the condemnation of the casual sexuality and other perceived sins, the priests are clearly asserting their own power and worth in the writing of this section. Eleazar (son and successor to Aaron) shows his military power, and the struggle is about purification as well as domination/conquering. The Israelites are very successful and they slay many people, they save only the virgin women who are presumably held captive. They also purify themselves after the slaughter according to Priestly law and ritual. Although the text does not mention that the Israelites are so successful because they are under God’s protection, the preceding chapters dealing with sacrifice, how to uphold the calendar/ritual holidays, and also on vows, makes the connection implicit. Of course, the writers of the story have an investment in presenting them as being victors because God is on their side.  

Mase’ei picks up where Mattot leaves off – describing the settlement of the Israelites as they approach Canaan. Mase’ei goes back through the wandering of the desert and traces where the Israelites are said to have stopped along the way. This provides a fictitious geographical history of the wandering in the desert and eventual conquering of Canaan. Not all scholars believe the text to be fictitious, but there is no historical evidence that the Israelites were in these places listed. Rather, it seems like the narrative retroactively invents the history so as to convince the people of the Exodus narrative. The narrative is compelling indeed. Obviously if your forebears wandered in the desert for forty years, did not survive, and left you to enjoy the land, not to mention the extreme punishments they endured for transgressions relating to faith/belief, there is a stake in you sticking with this people, this emerging religion. The Exodus narrative as repeated every Passover is still a pronounced experience of inculcation into peoplehood.  

After this “history,” God tells Moses to tell the people how to conquer Canaan. They must, essentially, destroy the Canaanite people and their objects of worship or else they will be destroyed. This section is about transferring all cultic and religious practice from Canaanite to Israelite (and what becomes Jewish) culture. Again, the story of the exodus is a tool to help bring forth this shift. The juxtaposition of these two elements – the wandering narrative with commands for how to solidify and solemnify as a cult/religion – shows us how inextricable these elements are. 

The next section focuses on justice and, in particular, the consequences for and of murder. It discusses that, once in the land, the people should establish areas where those accused/suspected of murder may flee and remain safe until tried. This is the establishment of due process and restraining the emotion which may provoke vengeance. The text also states that “You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land” (35.33). The text makes a direct connection between the land and the people. They are going to populate Canaan; they are going to finally be a people in a land. Now the people are even more responsible to act justly. Note that the text instructs that we not turn on one another – that we not “pollute” the land with one another’s blood – a reminder that it is not just the external enemies we face but division from within. When Jews fight one another, in violence or in ideology, we risk severing ourselves from one another and from our historical ancestors. The message in this parshah, just as the metaphor of the promised land looms large, is that we create the promised land by honouring each other.

Pinchas – on violence, on valour, and on victory

What I love about Torah is the sometimes striking juxtaposition between that which we find deplorable and that which we find inspiring. Parshat Pinchas is named for the man who brutally murders an Israelite man and a Midianite woman for engaging in intercourse. The text sees his actions as positive, but if the xenophobia doesn’t bother you, the stunningly violent description of how they die should. Given that Moses married Tziporah, also a Midianite, the Torah contains contradictions on the point of intercultural relations. I find the story of Pinchas, and his treatment as a hero, difficult — and patently contrary to the elements of justice and morality I seek in the text. 
And yet in Parshat Pinchas we also have one of my very favourite stories: The Daughters of Zelophehad. Left without a father and without any brothers, they have no legal claim to inheritance. They approach Moses and Eleazer and ask to be granted something so that they may live and so that they need not marry simply to survive. This part of the parshah is about resistance and justice. The women actively challenge male-only inheritance rights, thus inserting questions and provoking thinking about the lack of choices for women in a male-dominated society. The women state their case rationally and respectfully, but also resolutely. They are freedom fighters. The resolution is that they are told that their “plea is just” and they are granted property. What role models for Jewish women who have, in the last few decades, similarly pleaded and reasoned, explained and fought, for equal standing for women in Jewish institutions and structures! In Torah, like in life, we sometimes find horrific events that are hard to make sense of. But we also find stories of resistance that make the world better. 

Balak – on borrowing, on braying, and on building schools

Parshat Balak gives clues as to how the Jewish people and our texts evolved. Balak, hires a prophet/seer Balaam to curse Israel as they are making their way to the land. Balaam, an enemy of Israel, nevertheless has powers typically associated with a deity. This hints at early beliefs in a pantheon of gods (the book of Job gets at the same point). This story appears to share elements with other Mesopotamian texts, implying the kind of cultural mixing and sharing of stories that is natural in a multi-ethnic/cultural environment. What this suggests is that incorporated into the literature of the Hebrew bible are stories from other cultures, and this in turn tells the story of our people and its genealogical development. 
Unfortunately, despite borrowing from other cultures, this parshah asserts Jewish chosenness/superiority. God warns Balaam not to curse the Israelites, for they are “blessed” (22.12). Lines such as these have motivated Jewish culture to adopt a sense of their own chosenness and worth above others. Indeed, we have sympathy for the plight and fate of the Jewish people, but we hope for all peoples to have lives of dignity and worth. We do not delight in Jewish identity because it is superior to others, but only because in a world where all people have claim(s) to roots and traditions, these are our own. The idea of chosenness is something that Jewish reformers, including Humanistic Jews, have found to be in conflict with others of our Jewish values.
The narrative here turns downright strange, as Balaam’s ass sees one of God’s angels (again, implying some sort of multi-layered divinity) and tries to dodge it. This occurs three times, and three times Balaam whips the ass, which finally causes the ass to speak. The ass asks, essentially, why he is being beaten and notes that Balaam, having ridden him his whole life, should know that his strange behaviour is a warning sign, and he should take it seriously. It is rare, even in the literature of the bible which can ask us to suspend disbelief about certain characters and events that seem unlikely (to say the least), for the natural order of things to be so shaken. Even in a world in which bushes burn and staffs turn to snakes, animals rarely actually speak. What does it mean? For one thing, it is a clue as to how the original writers of this story understood the natural world and its gods differently to the early Hebrew writers, but that the text made it in anyway. It is a multicultural layering of meaning. Figuratively, we could ascribe the meaning of an ass pleading to be understood through his behaviour and, only after exasperation, through language. Animals/the natural world cannot speak, but give us signs as to how we are doing in their stewardship. We need to listen. 

These are poetic insertions into the narrative, again making this parshah particularly interesting from a genre point of view. Part of what Balaam speaks through his oracle is “how fair (sometime translated as “lovely”) are your tents, O Jacob” – something that has become part of Jewish liturgical services. While most rabbis have thought that Balaam says this at the sight of the temple, Targum Jonathan suggests that it was instead at the sight of the schools the people created. I love this idea! Balaam is convinced of the worth of the Israelite people because they have built schools! Although we reject the idea of chosenness, we can be proud of certain aspects of our heritage. A respect and love for education is not a singularly Jewish value, but it is a Jewish value we can locate in our textual sources. Parshat Balak is one of the strangest in the Torah cycle. Its value is in its clues as to Jewish evolution, in terms of our borrowing from other cultures, our relationship to the idea of “chosenness,” and a sense of wonder at the natural world that does, in its way, speak. How could we learn about all this if not through Jewish text and, as the text itself indicates, Jewish education?