Ki Tetse – on rebelliousness, on rule-making, and on renouncing one’s faith

Maimonides counts 72 laws in this parshah, for it reads as a law code without narrative elements. Instruction after instruction is given, but embedded in each rule/law can we find cultural values. The first is that the “rebellious son” should be stoned to death. This is a textual moment that betrays absolute intolerance to difference within the community. If one’s son worships another God, he is to be stoned. The Talmud takes this passage and nullifies it, explaining that there are so many specifications necessary for the son to be deemed “rebellious,” that such a stoning would be impossible. The Jewish intellectual tradition had to always attempt to hold in balance the idea of divine writing of the Torah (thus nothing therein can be wrong) and the human values that sometimes conflict with it.  
It seems unthinkable that someone would watch their own child die for any act of rebelliousness, yet this passage reminds me of those who sit shiva for their own children who intermarry. Like the prohibition against “idolatry” (worshipping Gods other than Yahweh), banning intermarriage is about keeping Judaism a closed and fixed group. It is a step up that contemporary Jews only imagine their children are dead (in sitting shiva), as opposed to actually killing them, but there is a long way to go in terms of how we find real humanity in Judaism. We, like the early rabbis dealing with this passage, must reconcile how we find meaning in the text, but also (and more importantly), how we find values that are extant to the text but more meaningful for our lives. One of the other rules given in the passage prohibits cross-dressing. There is no textual explanation for why cross-dressing should be banned; Rashi’s theory is that for women the only reason one would cross-dress is to commit adultery (disguising oneself to be able to have the freedom to be alone with a man), and the only reason a man would cross-dress is if he were homosexual. As both adultery and homosexuality are banned, Rashi reasons, cross-dressing should be banned as means to these things. Of course, there can be many reasons why people cross-dress (in fact, there is strong evidence that most cross-dressers are not gay. Presumably, there is no causal link between cross-dressing and adultery either). What is fascinating is that the biblical prohibition of cross-dressing shows that some people were doing it. In recent decades, queer rights movements have made it much safer for Jews to be “out” in many communities. There is much more work to be done in terms of equal recognition of marriage across the movements, the place for transgendered Jews in segregated seating, etc. But both of these (marriage and mechitza) in orthodox communities are inextricable with patriarchal Judaism – something that has never been friendly to sexual diversity. As Humanistic Jews, it is interesting that our biblical roots encode the fact that such diversity has been germane to Jewish culture. Jewish communities are and should always be at the forefront of the struggle for rights for queer and trans people, and should especially be welcoming of these and all people in our spaces. 

There are some astonishing laws given pertaining to women. A woman’s parents must prove she was a virgin by holding up a bloody sheet after consummation, if a question arises. There are shocking rules about rape and how it may be proven. Women are, in general, seen as property and have few rights, as is made clear in the rules detailed for Levirate marriage (a man must marry his brother’s widow). 

So far we have seen many laws and rules in the parshah that are distasteful for Humanistic Jews (and humanistic individuals in general). But there are also laws which show a real consideration of how to live fairly. The parshah says that slaves should be protected from harm (we are, of course, opposed to having slaves, but in favour of the idea that the weak/powerless should be protected). The parshah also says that one can eat from a neighbour’s vineyard or field as one passes, but one should not take anything away. Here we see an interesting approach to the balance between feeding the hungry and discouraging theft. Similarly, there is a prohibition against gleaning (the JPS text says “do not pick over”) the vines of fields after harvesting. Leave the leftovers for the “stranger, the fatherless, and the widow” (24.20-21). Thus the non-Jew, the orphan, the widow – all of those without a structure of familial and community support, should be provided for. There is an emphasis on hospitality and care-taking here that is laudable. There are, indeed, many rules relating to avoiding economic exploitation of others. It is clear that the text is very concerned with avoiding a cycle of poverty being passed down through generations, and very concerned with providing for the basic needs of all. This is something to celebrate. 

We have another rule which is special because it becomes important for a particular set of midrashim relating to Elisha ben Avuyah. The rule is that if one takes eggs from a nest, one should shoo away the mother (so that, presumably, she can lay eggs again and there is no permanent cost/damage). There is a midrash of a boy whose father tells him to take eggs from a nest. He obliges, climbs a tree where the nest is, and, remembering the rule, shoos away the mother. Elisha ben Avuyah sees the boy and thinks that he is fulfilling not one but two commandments: to honour one’s parents and to protect the mother bird. Elisha ben Avuyah knows that those who follow commandments are promised a long life. He thinks that the boy, in fulfilling two commandments, will be given a long life and – at just that moment – the boy falls from the tree and dies. 

After this, Elisha ben Avuyah can no longer believe in the truth of what he has been taught; he questions the link between Torah and justice, and he essentially renounces his faith. Rabbinic texts refer to Elisha ben Avuyah as “Acher” (other), for his status as an apostate separates him from his community. Many of us who find Humanistic Judaism have had the experience of feeling “other” in our families, synagogues, and Jewish communities because we too reject the idea of a good and moral God who, despite being all powerful, creates suffering. Whether through the horrific experience of the Holocaust, or the more quotidian yet still highly painful witnessing of poverty, oppression, and injustice in our world, we cannot accept that our world is the result of an omniscient, omnipotent, God. While we all struggle to find the line between our truth and our place in our family and community (we do not have to have the “existence of God” argument at every Shabbat dinner), we are delighted that, unlike Elisha ben Avuyah, we have access to communities that are welcoming of our views. We need not remain “Acher,” and our questioning attitudes can be the basis for strong intellectual and emotional ties in community. 

Shoftim – on tzedek, on Torah law, and on trees

This is a very well-known parasha, partly because it is so popular with Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Shoftim, judges, outlines a system of justice that keeps all levels of leadership in balance. The text says that judges should be appointed to ensure justice, that these judges should be restricted in their power (they must be objective, must not take bribes, must pursue justice). The system of governance outlined is remarkable for its forward-thinkingness. Religious, political, and judicial authorities are all required to ensure that none has ultimate authority – they keep one another in check. The rule of law is established; the people can choose a king, but the king must adhere to the law and to the religion (Note: the Torah says that a king should not take too many wives (17.17) and Rashi agrees, clarifying: “Only eighteen.”)
Towards the very beginning of the parshah is the famous line “tzedek tzedek tirdof” (“justice, justice shall you pursue) (16.20), which has been interpreted as the roots for the Jewish commitment to social justice and ethical behaviour on the part of religious and cultural Jews alike. Is it fair to suggest that Jews are more ethical than others, or is this simply a reiteration of chosenness? Recently I attended a lecture by Limmud founder and philanthropist Clive Lawton. Limmud is an international organization that promotes cross-denominational Jewish learning on just about any subject. Learning, Lawton feels, is central to Jewish culture. But so, he suggested, is ethical behaviour. The entire point of learning our tradition and celebrating our peoplehood, he suggested, is to create a better world.  

Humanistic Jews often cite the legacy of Jewish social responsibility as one of the reasons we are proud of our Jewish heritage and choose to remain part of the Jewish people. Our communities engage in social action/justice work whether it is service or advocacy, and we are proud of our contributions. Indeed, Shoftim gives us that warm, fuzzy feeling that our people have a long history of pursuing justice. We deserve to be proud of that history and of the significant contributions made by Jews as individuals and communities. By the same token, it is useful to consider that texts like this have sometimes been overblown. Think of some Haredi communities who treat women deplorably and then call it “justice.” Think of the unethical Jews we can think of, whether in our business or social worlds, who might be able to recite “tzedek tzedek tirdof,” but whose actions do the opposite. One of the aspects of Humanistic Judaism that we are proud of is the integrity that comes with believing what we say, and saying what we believe. We choose not to pray in our communities because such prayers assume that there is a personal God who will answer those prayers, and, if we do not believe in such a God, it is inauthentic to recite prayers that presuppose him. We should be mindful, however, that if we quote lines from Torah such as “tzedek, tzedek tirdof” that we similarly adopt an approach of being true to those words. Do we profit, whether through our work, our investments, our governments, from environmental destruction, class stratification, the oppression of others? If so, what are we doing to address those problems. Do we take seriously the task of tzedakah – both charity and justice? Do we give freely and willingly to causes we believe in, but also try to challenge the social and political causes that create the need those causes address? Is there more we can do? This is the challenge of this parshah. 

While we laud this parshah’s concern for justice as a concept, many of its examples are unjust to a contemporary reader. Someone who transgresses by worshipping other gods must be stoned. However, at least two witnesses must corroborate the accusation, and there is to be due process. We do not agree with the charge or the punishment, but we do agree in the sort of due process that the text calls for. Similarly, this parshah revisits the concept of “measure for measure” (e.g. “an eye for an eye”). While we do not believe this is the highest form of justice, it is important to understand that these rules were for crimes against a person. Crimes against property can be compensated for financially, while crimes that injure a person cannot. This principle shows that there is empathy for people and a value placed on human life that cannot be assigned a monetary value. These concepts are at the heart of the jurisprudence of the Torah. Even if the conclusions are not those we can accept in modern society, the Torah provides a philosophical approach to law-making that with which we can grapple. An example is in the case of manslaughter. The Torah gives an example of a man whose axe handle flies off while he is cutting a tree and ends up killing someone. The Torah says that three “cities of refuge” should be set up where this man can live without fearing the dead person’s kinsman will be able to find him and avenge the accidental death. Modern legal systems impose different charges and penalties for murder vs. manslaughter, and the issue of intent is of extreme importance when deciding on legal matters. It is fascinating that the Torah, and therefore the scholars who have studied it for generations, have pondered the legal questions that still inform our systems of justice today. 

One final point of interest in the parshah is that there are an awful lot of references to trees. There is the example of manslaughter when a man is cutting down a tree. There is also the rule that “sacred posts” (see commentary on Parashat Va-Ethannan), or asherim, not be worshipped. The Goddess Asherah was represented by trees and statues of her made from wood. Canaanite Gods in general were often worshipped at the site of trees, and so this parshah suggests that new trees not be planted on the Temple Mount, lest people be tempted to worship them. Another reference to trees is in the laws concerning holy war. The people are told that they cannot destroy the trees of the people they are conquering, but must leave them in tact (20.19). This final rule is the proof-text for the rule of “bal tashkhit,” or the rule not to destroy/waste natural resources. Jewish environmentalism uses this rule to promote environmental justice – another kind of justice that falls under the rubric of “tzedek,” Natural resources, such as trees, are hugely valuable to human and other forms of life. The anxiety on the part of the writers of the Torah, is that paganistic ritual that worshipped the natural world (or worshipped gods through praising the natural), would find their way into Israelite/Jewish practice. It is notable that the tree appears in many places in the parshah, when the people are being given instructions for how to administer themselves once they have (re)claimed the land. We are the people of “ha-aretz,” our relationship with the land (of Israel and also the earth itself as the source of life) being inextricable from our cultural practices. As we consider justice and tzedek in all of its forms, we should consider how “the land” – politically and ecologically – is the source and site of both injustice and justice. We should consider too how to address those issues. The Torah itself is referred to as “etz-chaim” (the tree of life). Our tradition’s writings and thinking are likened to the sustenance of the earth, a sign that both “feed” us. The earth provides material sustenance for our physical bodies, and Torah (by extension, I would include all Jewish thinking, history, philosophy, and literature) feeds our minds and hearts.  

Re’eh – on false gods, on forgiving debts, and on food choices

Once again in this parshah we have violent imagery for how the people should smash the idols of others, and even kill those who are tempted by other Gods. Religious warfare is something that the Jews know too well – for we have been its victims for too long. We read with discomfort the idea that a man should even kill a family member who has been praying to a false God. Religious piety can lead some people to do good. It can also lead some people to do horrible things, all in the name of God. Those who claim that the Torah is the source of morality must also acknowledge that it can be read equally as a source of immorality. Humanistic Jews are critical of all religious fundamentalism, including (and especially) on the part of Jews themselves. One’s own beliefs are one’s business, but religious should never give one permission to infringe on the rights of others.
This parshah brings up the idea of a false prophet – how is one to know which prophet is more legitimate and, by extension, which God more powerful? Deuteronomy limits the power of prophecy, admitting that “signs and wonders” can be faked. Moses Mendelsohn, the important Jewish philosopher, agrees with the textual view that “miracles are not the distinguishing mark of Truth” because “false prophets too can perform signs.” Truth is more complex and deep than can be revealed through the “signs” that some people look for. Indeed, we need to find our own truth and live according to the integrity of doing what we believe to be right, coming from our intrinsic sense of morality and goodness, and not from an external source. 
Much of the regulation here about how to deal with the false prophet, and those swayed by him (e.g. death on the spot), resembles Neo-Assyrian loyalty treaties that ensure loyalty on the part of subjects in the land (JPS commentators). This is significant because it shows that some of the language that gets used to implore religious devotion was actually taken from documents trying to exert human power. It is a sign that, despite the ways in which this parshah stresses utter separation from the surrounding culture, the Torah itself borrows from the surrounding culture in many instances.  

The issue of how to remain distinct while living amongst others is stressed particularly at this moment, when the Israelites are just about to enter the land. It is a moment of transition and of crossing. Things will never be the same again, and this consciousness is palpable. In spite of all of the destruction the text advises, it also seeks ways for the people to create peace. Rules for tzedakah are given in this parshah, such as rules for tithing and the shmita (sabbatical) year. Debts are to be forgiven (note: this is only for those within the community – foreign debts may stand), so that poverty does not become entrenched in the community. These rules were not necessarily followed, and we can imagine scenarios in which they would create chaos. But the metaphor of shmita – release – is a beautiful one. If we could imagine debts being forgiven, release from all obligation, and a society built around striving for fairness, we could certainly achieve a more harmonious society. This is what the writers, some suggest, are trying to achieve.The rules for tzedakah are not only prescribed, but they are accompanied by rules for how one should feel about giving. One should “give readily and have no regrets” (15.10). These are good notes for living ethically. It is fascinating when the Torah attempts to tell people precisely what to think and feel, as though simply in being told to feel something we can control it. Still, the idea that true giving comes with a happy heart is a nice one. 

In this parshah, the laws of Kashrut (not called this in the text itself) are expanded, with detailed lists of the animals one may or may not eat. The JPS commentators suggest that these rules are not about hygiene or health, as later thinkers suggest, but rather about placing order on the natural world. One can see how Maimonides, influenced by Aristotelian categorizations and classifications, would have been drawn to sections of the Torah such as this, when distinctions are made and lists produced. Commentators have argued about the reasons for including these food laws. Some feel it is to distinguish the community from outsiders. Some feel it is connected to a concern for animals (R. Kook, following Abarbanel, thought that animals should be consumed with the highest of consciousness and that vegetarianism be held as an ideal). Most Humanistic Jews do not eat according to the Kosher laws, for the reason and justification for doing so has to do with divine commandment and an almost furious rabbinic embellishment of the law. We do, however, consider it important to take ownership over the ethics of eating. Whether we choose to be vegetarian, eat local/organic food, support fair trade food policy, etc., our food choices have a huge impact on our health, on the environment, and on the people who produce our food. We should consider how we want our ethics and our food choices to align. Parshat Re’eh is filled with the good, the bad, and the ugly. It provides idealism, destruction, chauvinism, and wisdom. It is therefore a good parshah to get a flavour of the joys and challenges of reading Torah. 

Ekev – on remembering, on ritualizing, and on reconstructing

This parshah begins with a long description of all of the wonders God did for the Israelites to get them out of Egypt and protect them in the desert. The point is that now that the desert generation is gone, and the people can expect relative success in the Promised Land, the lessons of Egypt should be remembered. This strikes me as a parable for Jews in North America. North American Jewry began mainly with working-class immigrants from Eastern Europe who were fleeing pogroms, and a lack of economic opportunity. Of course there remain divisions in class amongst North American Jews, but as a whole our population has ascended in wealth dramatically. We should, however, remember the lessons of those that struggled to make it in North America. We should remember that class struggle still exists, and should be committed to alleviating poverty. We should also acknowledge the hard work it took for Jews to change their status, and be grateful that many of us live much easier lives because of that work. We should teach labour history to our kids in our schools, and acknowledge the continuing struggles of labour and class for Jews and all peoples today.  This parshah recommends that remembrance be not just a mental, but also a physical act. The commandments and oaths should be marked on the hand, the head, and the doorpost. From this we get the rituals of tefillin and the mezuzah. Most Humanistic Jews do not practice putting on tefillin, because the words contained inside the box are prayers. But it is something to consider that the physical ritual act does create symbolic remembrance. What of our past do we wish to remember, and how can we make that remembering physical? One example is the ritual act of lighting Yahrzeit candles on the anniversary of a death. Another is taking a walk to perform taschlich (the symbolic casting away of sins) on Rosh Hashanah. The physical rituals of the Passover seder, such as dipping greens into salt water, is another physical example of remembrance.  
Some Humanistic Jews like the idea of a mezuzah as a marker of Jewish identity and a Jewish home, but we do not use the traditional scroll containing the shema. We can use a Humanistic shema instead (see last week’s parshah commentary for more on this), or we can find any text – a poem, a piece of scripture we like, a blessing or saying – and put that inside the mezuzah instead. Finding physical ways to enact our identities keeps us grounded in our Judaism as well as providing a link with the broader Jewish community. 

Part of our physical necessities involves eating, of course. In this parshah we have the idea that eating can also be a way of remembering and ethical behaviour. There are several parts of this parshah that mention eating. One is that Moses says that God fed the cattle first in Egypt and then the humans. There is a lesson here about care for animals and for others. We should not satisfy our own needs before ensuring that those we care for are also satisfied. The Torah tells us to eat, be satisfied, and be grateful. In this parshah we have the origins for the “Birkat Hamazon” or blessings after meals. These blessings traditionally are theistic, but it can be a wonderful Humanistic practice to say blessings or some kind of acknowledgement of gratitude before and after meals. On Shabbat many of us bless the wine and the bread (there are Humanistic adaptations of the traditional prayers that thank those who bring forth the bread from the earth and the sun and rains that produce the fruit of the vine, for example), and at some meals it is a good practice to reflect on the good fortune and satisfaction we experience. 

This parshah also is where we get the phrase that “man” (people) does not live by/on bread alone. The text means that God provides bread but also spiritual sustenance. The idea is very applicable Humanistically as well. It is useful to consider what we are hungry for in our lives – what is missing that could provide us with sustenance? Some commentaries read the “on bread alone” line as being about prayer. Some see it as making sure our intentions are good, as well as our actions. Some read it as stressing the value of education – we need learning as much as we need food. All of these are possible readings for us. What is true, for sure, is that a fullness does not come from satisfying only our physical needs, our mental, emotional, and “spiritual” (if this is a term one finds meaningful) needs must be met as well. 

In this parshah, Moses tells the people that they are “stiff-necked.” He recalls how he descended the mountain to deliver the commandments, written on tablets by God himself, only to find the golden calf. He admonishes the people, telling them that “As long as I have known you, you have been defiant toward the Lord (9.24). In parashat Ki Tissa, which tells the golden calf story, the term “stiff-necked” is also used. In the commentary on that parshah I wrote that being stiff-necked could be viewed as a positive Jewish trait. Our stubbornness has led to a tenacity that has kept us going and kept us strong. We have never bowed down easily to Gods or rulers, and this is a good thing in terms of how we choose to define our own lives. Humanistic Jews see our own roots in this biblical admission. our people have always questioned the idea of God and the place of a God in our lives. Deuteronomy places such emphasis on ensuring that other religious/cultural rites and traditions are not followed, and that God should become central in the lives of the people, precisely because there were so many people who were living their spiritual lives in contravention of these rules. The Torah is showing us that there has always been pluralism when it comes to belief and practice of our people. 

The final thing I wish to discuss in this parasha is the repetition, once again, of the commandment to love the stranger. Rabbi Eliezer counts 36 times that the Torah gives this commandment (twice chai, or life). The love thy neighbour/the stranger commandment also often comes with a note of remembrance: we know we must be good to others because we too were strangers in the land of Egypt. The JPS commentators suggest that in this iteration of the commandment it is clear that the “stranger” is not simply the convert or the Israelite neighbour, but in fact extends to other nations/ethnicities. Judaism has not always done a great job of practicing the idea of being good to others across ethnic lines, but it is a point of pride that many of our soup kitchens, philanthropic agencies, or community projects do seek to benefit Jews and non-Jews alike. Again, there are modern parallels to the idea that we have learned to love our neighbours because we have lived amongst neighbours that are inhospitable to us. We have been minorities, we have been immigrants, we have struggled. Thus we should be mindful to be welcoming and good to minorities, immigrants, and those who struggle. This is what the tradition teaches. 

Va-Ethannan – on the decalogue, on destroying idols, and on deciding for ourselves

This parshah begins with Moses telling the people how he begged God to let him into the land, but it will be Joshua to lead the people in. This is an interesting narrative moment because the people (his addressees), like the later hearer/reader of these words, feels a genuine pathos for Moses. This is one of many reminders that Moses is human, not divine. This is important because he is not just a figurehead but rather a role model. he overcomes adversity (e.g. becoming a speaker in spite of his speech impediment), faces adversaries, deals with family squabbles, and lives a life of frustration and disappointment, as well as joy and triumph. This introduction to the weekly parshah is a good reminder of the fullness of humanity. What follows is very directed by and at God and worship, but behind all of the commandments and theistic pronouncements is the understanding that all of this is in the service of humanity. We are to follow the law not just for love of a God, but love of our neighbour. This is the backdrop to, and spirit of, the Decalogue that we visit again in this parshah. 
Why are the ten commandments recited twice in the Torah, once in Exodus and once in Deuteronomy? The most widely accepted answer amongst scholars is that the writings reflect two different early Jewish communities. As noted above, it is likely that Deuteronomy was not intended by its writers to exist alongside other biblical books. Many scholars compare and contrast the versions, and there are differences, but the substance of the ten commandments remains the same. As Moses tells the commandments he addresses the people directly, and notes that they saw and heard elements of divinity and majesty at the mountain. These sensory details anchor the narrative – again, Deuteronomy is quite aware of its own narrativity – and not only must the people remember this experience, but they are told to pass it on to their children. We see here the formation of narrative memory, we are told that we are witnesses and then told to tell our story as witnesses. The rituals of the Passover seder mean this telling and remembering occur annually, and have, indeed, served as the backbone to peoplehood for centuries. Much is made of the first two commandments that “I am the Lord your God … you shall have no other Gods beside me” and “You shall not make for yourself a graven image” The first commandment can be read two ways: it either suggests that there is only one God or, more plausibly, that there are many Gods but Yahweh is the one that the Israelites/Jews must worship. The prohibition against idolatry is a move towards destroying the images of not just Yahweh, but the Gods with whom he competes. The world in which the Torah was written (accounting for the long span of time over which it was written), was not a monotheistic world. Much of the discussion of the “oneness” of God (see below as well regarding the Shema) speaks to a monolatrous, not monotheistic world. The JPS editors note that there is sometimes an anachronistic reading of the bible; that Second Temple communities read monotheism into earlier texts that had a divine council (a group of Gods who ruled, and competed sometimes for position) in mind. The editors note as well that sometimes modern Jews are unaware of the tension between monotheism and monolatry because synagogue prayer books also obfuscate the issue through translation/explanatory notes that upholds monotheism. It is too bad that the theological debates that present in the text of the bible are ignored by so many. Those who read the bible historically should be fascinated to learn of how our ancestors altered their view of God(s) and how our people developed. This is part of the richness of our textual tradition. The JPS editors also suggest that “the Decalogue inextricably ties love of God with love of neighbor” as most of the commandments have to do with how we treat each other. While the way we read the bible theologically might vary across the movements, it is almost universally recognized that there can be no love for divinity without love for humanity. 

The commandments such as honouring one’s parents, prohibitions against adultery (although, note, adultery meant only men sleeping with married women. A married man could have affairs with others and it was not in violation of the law) are useful in trying to create an orderly and perhaps even a just society. There are also commandments that appeal to the best part of ourselves. We are commanded not to covet what our neighbour has. While theft can be prohibited, jealousy cannot. Still, the text wants us to recognize this as a fault. A better way to put it might be: “try to be happy with what you have.” The commandment to keep the Sabbath not only has been extremely important in building and maintaining Judaism as a coherent group, but has leant meaning to Jewish lives. While I do not “keep” the Sabbath halachically, I do try to celebrate Shabbat dinner with friends and family, I love getting together with my Humanistic congregation to sing, eat, and celebrate as well, and I think separating a time in the week for rest is hugely valuable in our busy lives. Humanistic Jews can take much from the Decalogue, and can also note with interest that our ancestors created one of the earliest law codes.

Following the recitation of the Decalogue we have the words that have become one of the most recognized pieces of Jewish liturgy: the Shema. If the Decalogue can have meaning for Humanistic Jews, can the Shema? The words we get in the text are. ear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone (6.4). This is the JPS translation. Readers might be more familiar with “the Lord is one” as the translation, but the word “echad” leaves on the possibility of both “alone,” “one,” and also “united.” Again, in the translation we can see the tension between monotheism and monolatry. For Humanistic Jews, the translation will likely not make a difference for us. We do not recite the Shema because it cannot be divorced from its theism. But because so many Jews associate the Shema with their forebears, their upbringing, or their sense of Jewish collectivity, we have versions that we do say and find meaningful. One of many versions in our movement is:

Shma Yisrael ava Neetol Chelek beTikkun Olam 

Hear O Israel, Let us take part in repairing the world 

This version makes our task of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) central. Others make our commitment to community central (although, it is hard to claim that Jews/our community/humanity is “one” –given how much we disagree/diverge). The point is that Humanistic Judaism must always struggle with the tension between using text and retaining the integrity of saying what we believe. The shema has been, for us, an evolving conversation about how we approach these issues. 

As the people are about to enter the promised land, they are told to construct and remain a separate community amidst others. For this reason, intermarriage is strictly forbidden (7.3-4), particularly because there is an anxiety that the non-Jewish women might turn children away from belief in Yahweh. This too appears familiar in contemporary contexts. There is so much anxiety about whether children from intermarried homes can/should/will be Jewish. Humanistic Jews dispense with these anxieties. We trust the Jews who come to our communities to decide what is right for them. Some of our families who have intermarried see themselves as “just Jewish,” some celebrate other cultural/religious traditions as well, some are ambivalent and some passionate about the issue, etc. The truth is that the range we experience in our communities is the same as in all liberal communities. The difference is that all of these couples and families, regardless of the choices they make and the ways they identify, are fully welcomed in our communities. Just as it is a mistake for Jews to read monotheism onto a text that existed before a monotheistic world, so too would it be a mistake to disparage the text when it is inconsistent with our contemporary values. The ban on intermarriage makes sense for a people who are figuring out how to live amongst others and yet retain a distinct peoplehood (although, it strikes me as ironic that the ban on intermarriage is meant to be spoken by Moses, who himself intermarried). 

There are other moves towards creating a distinct group in the text. Here we have the mention of Jewish chosenness, an issue that also becomes controversial for modern Jews. Moses says that God values the Jews and fights for them not because they are the biggest of communities (in terms of number), but because they are the “smallest of peoples.” It is understandable that, because the Jews have always had small numbers, the writers of the text wanted to give the people reasons to remain in the community. The idea of chosenness by God, fostering a special sense of pride, is one of these reasons. Humanistic Jews, and other liberal Jewish groups, reject the idea that the Jews are better than others. But we do take pride in the ways that we are unique and special. All peoples have roots and traditions, and we are proud of our own. 

The final idea to be addressed in this parshah is that of free will. Our stance on intermarriage is just one example of how we believe in and encourage “free will” for Humanistic Jews. Judaism as a whole believes in free will, but defines it differently. In this parshah we have the Jewish proof-text for free will, as Moses tells the people that God hopes they will do his will (i.e. he does not know for sure) (5.25). In the numerous debates on the existence of God, the point is often made that God cannot be fully omnipotent and also allow for free will. Here we also see that free will limits his omniscience – if the people can decide whether to follow him, and he does not know whether they will, then he has neither total power nor total vision. But this is not what I mean by “free will” for members of the Humanistic Jewish community. I am speaking more of a freedom of will that transcends theology. We believe that people should be free in as many ways as possible, so long as they are not injurious. We want people to be free to explore Judaism’s history, texts, and cultural traditions (and we do not censor these out of fear for what they’ll find). We want people to be free to identify with their Jewish identity and peoplehood in the way(s) that make sense to them. We want people to find what is meaningful, and pursue happiness on their own terms, regardless of how it may conflict with tradition or Halachah (Jewish law). We value not only the aspect of “freedom” in the concept of “free will,” but also of “will” itself. If we are the ones who are both the cause of the world’s problems and also the only ones who can change/improve the world, then our will matters immensely. We need to take seriously the impact of our choices, and know that our will has a profound impact on ourselves, others, and our world. If humanity willed that violence would end, that the environment be protected, that all children be educated, that hunger be abated, we could make those things happen. This is the Humanistic interpretation of free will.