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. 


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