August 3rd, 2018 This week’s Sidra from the Torah, from the Parasha 'Ekev’ which starts in Deuteronomy Chapter 7 verse 12, presents us with a terrible, deep, existential theological dilemma. Although I have no answers to share with you, I do not want to avoid the question – but it is truly a major one. It is the question: ”Can we believe what God says?”
Last week’s sidra, 'Va’etchanan’, ended with a set of instructions and a description of the relationship between God and Israel which I can only describe as neurotic. God says – or Moses says it in God’s name – that the Israelites, on entering the Land of Israel that has been promised to them, should be utterly ruthless in dealing with the existing inhabitants. There are seven nations – Girgashites and Amorites and Canaanites and Jebusites and more – and God will deliver them into the hands of the Israelites, who should make no treaty with them, no covenant, should not intermarry with them and indeed should drive them out or destroy them. Pretty heavy! Their cultic centres and altars should be torn down, they should not have any chance to distract Israel from the true path. It is very fundamentalistic, very radical and extreme. Very Talibanistic. Not the kind of image we normally want to project of Judaism.
It ends with the verse ”You shall keep the commandments and the statutes and the rules which I am commanding you today, and do them.” So there.
And then our new sidra starts. With the concept – ”BECAUSE you have obeyed these rather brutal laws, therefore God will show love to you, God will keep the promises that were made, God will make sure that everything works out well.” God will bless the fruits of the body and of the beasts and of the land, and bless us, and remove all sicknesses, and give us the confidence to stare those who hate us in the face and tell them go away; we should not be afraid.
If you don’t want to be liberal or humane these are wonderful verses, that speak of total victory over all others, but if you wish to be a Progressive Jew then they are, at best, embarrassing and at worst downright frightening. Is this the God we can trust?
Well, a part of the answer is, of course, that we have no choice! There IS only the One God! ”Shema Yisra’el, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad!” That was reinforced only one chapter ago, in chapter 6! And the command there continues that we have to LOVE this God with all our hearts and minds and strengths, it is unconditional.
And another part of the answer – or at least, of an answer – is that we expect love from God also, despite what we do – and some of what we do is also violent or embarrassing or simply tasteless and tactless. The Torah tells us here however that the love is not unconditional, that we have to obey and respect God, if we want to earn God’s love. THIS is the embarrassing, challenging idea. Is Religion, is Faith merely a matter of ”obeying orders even if we don’t agree with them”? Is obedience rather than a sense of justice the only thing which counts? Can a worship of Rules and Laws also not count as a form of Idolatry?
Within our Tanach we find that the Prophets would, again and again, argue that a slavish obedience to ritual rules was NOT enough, and that God demands an open, tolerant society which takes matters of social justice for the weak seriously, which should be ”a light to the nations”. So there is a disconnect between the Torah and the Nevi’im, the books of the Prophets. This debate between Priests and Prophets runs right through Judaism and in some respects one could argue that Orthodoxy is a concentration upon the Ritual and that Progressive Judaism is a concentration upon the Social Justice elements. If only it were so simple…..
There are no simple answers to these questions and I urge you to beware anyone, any time, who offers ANY simple answers to any major theological question. By definition they cannot be right. But the questions do not go away and how we relate to them defines what sort of people we are, and what sort of Jews. As we know, Religion has often been used – or misused – as an excuse to kill people who have a different belief. As Jews we have suffered over the centuries from Christians and Atheists and Moslems – as soon as one group weakens another rises and the only thing that seems to link them all is a desire to persecute Jews. It does make one wonder…..
So let me turn to two other elements of our calendar. The first is, this Shabbat is known as the Second Shabbat of Consolation, for it follows the day of mourning of Tisha B’Av, the 9th. of Av. We read as especial Haftarah from Isaiah chapter 49:14 to 51:3. Even if in our despair we might sometimes believe that God might forget us, says the prophet, no, God will not, just as a mother cannot forget her baby. Ironically one of the images Isaiah uses (49:20) is of a time when there will be so many people in Jerusalem again – following the destruction and rebuilding – that there will be a shortage of accommodation! Well, we can certainly say that This prophecy has come true! The prophet states (50:4-9) that he has suffered for saying what he knew he had to say, what God had told him to say – he had been hit and spat upon – but nevertheless he will continue to say what has to be said. And although he refers to a God who makes Darkness; this is also a God who makes Light; a God who drives the people into exile but who will also bring them back. This is a God, he says, who comforts Zion and can turn the desert into fertile gardens. ”Joy and gladness shall be found therein, Thanksgiving, and the voice of melody.” Consolation indeed.
And the second is: This Shabbat is also known as 'Mevarchin haChodesh Elul’ – the month of Elul will begin in the coming week, in fact it is one of those complicated calendrical anomalies that next Shabbat will count as being the thirtieth day of a month with twenty-eight days – please do not ask me to explain this, one has to be an astronomer and a physicist and a mathematician to comprehend how these cycles work, and I am none of these! – suffice it to say that it is on THIS Shabbat that we announce the beginning of the next month. But that means we remind ourselves that the month of preparation for the High Holy Days begins soon, the month of Elul being the build-up to the vital month of Tishri.
After all this information, after all these texts and calendrical issues – Where are we? Where do we stand? What have we learned? What we take with us to think about?
It is not easy, from our modern perspective, to read some of our ancient texts. Sometimes it helps to put ourselves into the minds and context of the time, but sometimes this is very difficult. What is holding the Israelites together in the desert? A sense of common purpose, and this sense of common purpose can be weakened if exposed to too many distractions and alternatives – and therefore such distractions have to be avoided or eliminated. The problem is not that other peoples have other ways of worshipping, it is that Israelites may be tempted or enticed into joining them. There is no sense of mission, of persuading the Moabites or Midianites to become Israelites – but there IS a fear that the Israelites will marry into and integrate with and assimilate into becoming Moabites or Midianites. This is one theological or political approach.
Every group of people who approaches another country, another society faces this question: ”How far should we integrate, and how far should we maintain our own identity?” Some issues involve language or schooling or the basic civil responsibilities of keeping to the laws and paying the taxes. But should one be able at home or in schools to maintain the other language? Should one be able to meet in some rented room and maintain the original religion, not the one practiced by the neighbours all around? Should one be able to prepare or buy the food that belongs to Your tradition and not just what everyone else is eating? May one maintain different forms of clothing? Different social practices?
In Europe we see how in many countries the question of integrating Islam into what were formerly Christian societies is causing extreme emotions. And I deliberately use the term ”formerly Christian societies” because there are some clear Christian teachings on how to deal with strangers, and they are clearly not being followed. In many respects Christianity lost its way, especially after the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it became far too closely associated with secular power, and with some honourable exceptions it lost its concern for moral and social justice. Now, into this spiritual vacuum, comes another group of people with their own powerful religious feelings. It is interesting to observe. The former Christians, who had managed to eliminate almost all Jews from Europe, now call upon the Jews to help them sort this out and appeal to the presumed 'Jewish-Christian basis of European values’. We cannot. Those very few of us here can only point to our own texts, our own traditions. Despite concerns on antisemitism (which, according to many scholars, was taught to Middle East Moslems by European Christians) we can hardly join in an attack on Islam for believing in circumcision, or in ritual slaughter of animals for food, or in wanting days off for worship, or in wanting people to wear head coverings – even if our own Jewish attitudes to these topics are NOT identical with those of Islam. (We have different rules of slaughter, we perform circumcisions differently and not on girls, we wear kippah and tichl and sheitel and not burka, and so forth.)
History does not repeat itself directly, thank goodness, but one can sometimes observe developments with interest. Is that a comfort, a consolation on this Shabbat of consolation? I am not sure. I doubt it. But it may be the only consolation we have. Something worth discussing, later.
Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild