The Last of Deuteronomy
Then the Levite, who has no hereditary portion as you have, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your settlements shall come and eat their fill, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the enterprises you undertake. Deuteronomy 14:29
I like to think that I have lived a blessed life, and I certainly hope that those blessings continue for me and those around me. I do not believe that I have earned these blessings; I have the good fortune to have been born into circumstances that allow me to help provide for the Levite and the stranger, the fatherless and the widow. My values include efforts to extend my blessings to others.
It has taken me a long time to appreciate that such an approach is pretty much the definition of privilege. As I have come to understand it, privilege is not the same as arrogance. It is instead a presumed advantage, even when that advantage is not pursued out of malevolence.
Call me a snowflake or a wuss or whatever you like, but before you dismiss my confession, take another listen to the voice in which this Deuteronomic instruction is reported. Were I a Levite, stranger, orphan, or widow, it would be immediately clear to me that I was not being addressed in either the collective or singular “you.” The desired norm is to have a hereditary portion, a settled place to live and enterprises that are successful or, perhaps more Biblically, to be “blessed.”
The Levites, for all their honor and access to the divine, are permanently disenfranchised from owning land. The stranger – that is, not merely someone unknown, but someone not a part of our people or tribe – requires special instruction to live among us. The fatherless and the widow are some combination of young and female and without a grown-ass man to care for them. They are the objects of this instruction, not the subjects.
It is not my conclusion that the Bible does not claim that all people are created equal. From the very beginning, it is clear that humanity is descended from a set of common ancestors. Each of us is born into this world innocent and filled with potential. But from that moment on, we are victims of choices, some made by us, most made for us. A man who works the land, a woman who suffers in childbirth. A son who mocks his father’s nakedness, another who covers the embarrassment. A father’s favorite who sells his birthright, a mother’s favorite who steals a blessing. In each generation, the Bible chooses the subjects of the story and relegates the rest to supporting roles, to anonymous support, to being acted upon.
Does that perspective nullify the worth of Biblical instruction? Hardly. But it does raise, in my mind, at least two questions. The first is, what is the goal of inviting the under-privileged into my home? If it is merely to ameliorate their disadvantage, that is, to assuage their hunger, then my generosity is only a delaying tactic. Certainly, they will hunger again tomorrow, defined by their disenfranchisement. The second is, what is the nature of my compassion? However deeply and intensely it is felt, it is, at some level, condescending. “Oh, you poor thing” is as much a judgment as it is an expression of concern.
Taking any verse or group of verses out of context is disingenuous, whether discussing sacred texts, legal decisions, or public oratory. So, I will acknowledge that it is unfair to conclude that the entirety of the biblical ethos is addressed to the privileged of that time or any time. But it is impossible to ignore that there is a streak of noblesse oblige in so much of what is taught as God’s will.
The antidote, I believe, is empathy. Appreciating a commonality of circumstances with others changes an act of largesse offered at arm’s length into an embrace. In other places, we are reminded that we were strangers once. Most everyone will be orphaned, half the number of life partners will be widowed, more than a few will await no hereditary portion.
At least in my Jewish tradition, empathy is a lesson God learns from human beings. Having no peer, the Holy One is stuck with judgmental responses – compassion, anger, approbation, actual judgment. They are gifted to members of the human family to give us God-like powers.
But empathy requires something common, both in the sense of “shared” and in the sense of “ordinary.” The Levite is my brother, the widow is my sister, the orphan is my ward and the stranger is my long-lost family. Maybe I am not evolved enough to say “all that I have is yours,” but I hope I can be wise enough to invite you to live in my world because I live in yours.
In the end, that’s the blessing of being a human being. And the privilege.
THE BLOOD IS THE LIFE-FORCE
The Last of Deuteronomy
Only you must not partake of its blood; you shall pour it on the ground like water. Deuteronomy 15:23
When I was a rabbinical student, longer ago than I like to admit, I took an extraordinary set of courses from a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Ze’ev Mankowitz, of blessed memory, was an exceptionally popular instructor for visiting students. His subject was the Holocaust. His expertise and erudition were not limited to the horrors of the murdering of so many human beings – though he did not omit any aspect in the year-long class. He insisted on exploring the question that every student carried into his large lectures: why.
You don’t need to scan this column to find the fast answer. There is, of course, no one answer. The convergence of religious doctrine, pagan practice, economic interests, political changes, intellectual pretensions, sociopathic ambition, and scientific arrogance (and inauthenticity) all contributed to the “othering” and dehumanization of Jews and others deemed inferior.
But the one aspect that Prof. Mankowitz presented that made the greatest impression on me was anthropological. He discussed in one session the uneasiness with which human beings of all stripes treat bodily effluence. Those substances that should be contained in a sealed system – like the body – become dangerous and threatening if they escape. He used a remarkably effective illustration, distributing clean disposable “shot glasses” to us and challenging us to spit our own saliva into it and then drink it back down. Some students could and some could not, but all of us were struck by how something that was a split-second previously a natural part of our own body became, once outside that body, a source of profound discomfort.
The lesson went on to discuss other such “escapes,” including feces, urine, ejaculate, infected fluids and, of course, blood. In art, “science,” and rhetoric, the Nazis became adept at exploiting a history of denigrating Jews as those who feasted on those substances expelled from the body, most especially blood.
I repeat: there is no one explanation for the atrocities of the Holocaust, but once I was exposed to this aspect, it stayed with me for, so far, forty years.
It was especially powerful in the context of the work of Margaret Mead, who wrote extensively on the belief in “mana,” not the sustaining food of the Israelite wandering, but the presumed life-force that was honored and feared in pre-scientific cultures. There is no room for a primer on the notion here, other than to say many cultures understood that the life-force by any name was contained in the blood. It makes sense. If an animal or person bleeds, the more blood escapes, the weaker it gets. And therefore, it makes sense that if you consume the blood of another, you acquire the life-force.
For the Nazis, Jewish blood was polluting (and also ejaculate, most certainly). It was in their perverted interests to reinforce the revulsion to escaped fluids that would pollute the purity of the Aryan individual and, both literally and metaphorically, the Aryan culture. It was part of the broader plan to marginalize and devalue Jewish lives.
That revulsion, however, is also present in the Bible. The prohibition of consuming blood is comprehensive, expanded into requirements of preparing kosher meat by soaking and salting or broiling to reduce, to the greatest extent, even the accidental ingestion of blood. Likewise, the flow of blood and other fluids from the body is depicted as polluting, not from a hygienic point of view, but from a ritual perspective (which I might argue parallels the anthropological description). It is quite an irony that some Christians and all Nazis exploited this disgust embedded in Judaism to denigrate the Jews most likely to uphold these prohibitions.
You might think we know better now – slogans like “blood and soil” are relegated to those not-so-fine people on the other side. But I would contend that the messaging is just a bit more subtle. Over the past four years the race, ethnicity and religion of “outsiders” have been called into question by leaders in high positions. They depict not so much a conflict of ideas as an inherent “mana” that should not be allowed to escape into the purity of what makes America great. They are rapists coming for your daughters. They are murderers wanting your blood. They are dangerous criminals stoppable only by lethal force. And some of them have sent over an invasive virus designed to pollute our economy and, incidentally, our lives.
As the verse says, you must not partake.
AN HONEST SINNER
The Last of Deuteronomy
For you will be heeding the Lord your God, obeying all his commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, doing what is right in the sight of the Lord your God. Deuteronomy 13:19
I have always tried to be a rule-follower. I have not always been successful, but at least I am willing to acknowledge when I have stepped over the line.
One of the lines I know I intentionally blur has to do with the practice of fasting. To put it simply, I don’t. Until very recently, when medical circumstances have made nutrition and hydration necessary, I was diligent about Yom Kippur. But the locus of my rebellion otherwise has been the roster of major and minor fasts that symbolize our mournfulness for past tragedies. They make me physically miserable and spiritually resentful, never mind some of my philosophical objections to what they commemorate.
The mistake I do not make is suggesting that God does not want me to fast. Whatever rationale I have developed for my personal practice, I do not lay claim to knowing better than the instruction of the tradition and/or the consensus of believing and practicing Jews in which I count myself what God’s will is for us in general or me in particular. In the classic words of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I dissent. Unlike the Notorious RBG, my dissent is not grounded in the law.
I mention my transgression so soon after I have atoned for others because I wonder about the phrase “doing what is right in the sight of the Lord your God.” The small verse above contains three measures of devotion – heeding, obeying, doing. Do they represent three ways of saying the same thing (not at all unusual when the Bible is emphasizing a point) or three different assessments of commitment (not at all unusual among commentators who consider nothing superfluous or repetitious in the Bible)?
If it is the former, my intentional transgression dooms me to be an unrepentant sinner. I know that sounds so, well, religious, but it’s a big deal when someone considers himself, well, religious. For those whose more liberal standards about Jewish practice lead them away from certain kinds of ritual observance, my choice may seem inconsequential. But at least in theory (and however broadly I define the standard), I am committed to heeding the word of God and obeying God’s commandments. I go to great lengths and inconvenience to uphold that standard.
Let me add that I am not looking for absolution, as if some other rabbi could exempt me from fasting or shabbat observance or keeping kosher. I am not looking for reassurance from others who have compassion for my reasoning. I am not looking for support from Jews Against Fasting or some other group that objects to this ritual. I know what I am doing is, by the standards I accept for myself, wrong. I prefer to live with that dissonance. That is, IF heeding, obeying, and doing are parallel concepts.
But what if the three phrases mean different things? What if the first means attending to God’s instruction, the second upholding that instruction, but the third finding that which is the distinct way for me as an individual to do what is right in the sight of the Lord MY God?
I have always been skeptical of anyone who claims to know the will of God personally. I know that flies in the face of some understandings of my own tradition and of broad swaths of believers in other faiths. Perhaps it is my proclivity to following the rules, but I look askance at any statement that begins, “I believe that God wants ME to…”
Mostly, what follows those words is an excuse to ignore a collective standard. Often it is to excuse oneself from an inconvenient requirement (which is why I will never say “I believe that God wants me to eat on a fast day.”) Sometimes it is an excuse to exceed the limits of piety (as when ultra-orthodox Jewish men will not sit next to a woman on an airplane). But mostly it is used to justify something that has less than nothing to do with God’s concerns; instead, it has to do with a personal desire to be justified with a theological claim.
God does not care about touchdowns. God is unconcerned about holiday greetings. God does not select political candidates.
I make those statements not because I know the will of God personally, but because the Bible is pretty clear about what is right in the sight of God. To do justice. To love mercy. To feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless. To cultivate holiness within and compassion without. To remember how awful it is to be a stranger.
I’d rather be an honest sinner than a lying believer.
The Last of Deuteronomy
You shall not act thus toward the Lord your God, for they perform for their gods every abhorrent act that the Lord detests; they even offer up their sons and daughters in fire to their gods. Deuteronomy 12:31
What is the thing that is so horrendous that you would never forgive yourself if you did it?
It happens that this column is being distributed just before Yom Kippur, the end of the annual six-week period during which Jews inventory their shortcomings and sins, repent of them, and seek forgiveness, both human and divine. For those who take this time period solemnly, the question is not academic.
Inherent in the need to repent is the inevitability of transgression. Inherent in the process of repentance is the authenticity of forgiveness. But is there something for which, no matter how deeply you feel and express regret and penitence, no reconciliation with yourself would be possible?
At least in the instance above, the crime beyond all crimes is child sacrifice – the decision to offer up sons and daughters in fire to false gods. The act itself is so profoundly repugnant to me that it pushes me beyond my general avoidance of anthropomorphism: I imagine God’s head shaking in disbelief. Even without cosmic condemnation, the inhumanity of allowing innocent life to be purposely taken is almost beyond belief.
How in the world could a parent convince himself or herself to allow, let alone participate in, such an act?
I have a friend who spent most of his adult life arguing vociferously that the act of terminating a pregnancy – abortion – is a crime of this magnitude. I understand that even putting those words into print will infuriate some of you as you read this, but I offer you the challenge to address the ferocity of your reaction before you reach a conclusion. There is a difference between a fetus and a child, but even someone like me who supports reproductive choice without hesitation must acknowledge that a fetus is alive, and that a decision to end a pregnancy is the decision to end a life.
My friend has reconsidered his unambivalent stance, and he regrets what he had condoned in service of that conviction. (Whether he receives your forgiveness or his own is not mine to determine.) Much of what has moved him from absolutism is the anguish he has heard from women who have made an agonizing decision to seek an abortion. It has helped to mitigate his uncompromising position because he listened to different perspectives.
Mostly, I think, we dismiss the advocacy of opponents to abortion because we believe (in my opinion) they take a simplistic stand that is without nuance. We hear them purport to speak for “the unborn” and we accuse them of caring more about creatures-in-formation who are without consciousness than their mothers-in-formation who struggle with the moral questions of carrying to term. We contrast their position – often by imposing our own suppositions – with their lack of equal advocacy on behalf of children living in poverty, children with physical or mental challenges, or children brought to the United States in search of a better life. And I must add that the tactics of some professional abortion opponents have placed the dignity and even lives of good and decent people as worthy of assassination.
But I contend that it is too convenient to paint opponents of abortion with the broad brush of hypocrisy. The exercise of listening to people who have internalized the sacred nature of nascent life is an important one. It demands considered reflection on the part of those who work, as I do, to make abortion safe and legal. The questions that are raised by those who object to abortion are as important to me as are the questions I seek to raise with them.
The first of those questions is whether our sons and daughters are being offered up to false gods. The advancements of science and its understanding of human life are not the same as the spiritual and moral questions with which we struggle. Just because we are able to act does not mean we should. If spiritual answers do not substitute for scientific knowledge, then certainly the opposite is also true.
And not far behind is how we support each other in our pain. Not a one of us has been commanded to make a sacrificial offering of a child, thank God. But innocent lives are lost to poverty, to neglect, to family separation. My heart breaks for them, especially when it seems I can do little or nothing to prevent it. I feel unforgiven for my impotence. Those whose perspective on the nature of life within the womb is different from mine feel that pain as well. It should not be dismissed.
It is nearly impossible to consider these matters without inflaming emotions. Everyone who does not have a story of heartbreak at least knows a story of heartbreak. Reflection is often cut short by both sides, each accusing the other of insensitivity or faithlessness.
We need compassion for each other. And for ourselves. And we need to listen.
The Last of Deuteronomy
Take care to observe all the laws and rules that I have set before you this day. Deuteronomy 11:32
(No discussion is included below of the “observer effect” in physics, which I do not understand and, unless you have studied physics, neither do you. Really.)
The specialized vocabulary that is part of Jewish life has its analogs in other faith traditions. Except for those that developed in American English-speaking denominations (American evangelicalism, Latter Day Saints and Scientology, for example), those vocabularies as we use them in the United States are translations. And, as the Italians say, traduttore, traditore. That is, to translate is to betray. (It doesn’t work as well in English.)
I know that there are some words that have found their way into the American idiom from Hebrew and Yiddish. Those are the words that convey something in their original form that can’t be as well communicated in the necessary – schlep, chutzpah, shtick, for example, as well as a variety of epithets and the universal exclamation of distress, oy (which is Biblical, by the way). Similarly, Hebrew speakers find themselves at a loss to find equivalents to some of the native idioms that they find so useful – mah pit’om, chaval (al haz’man), tit’chadesh. I won’t even try to betray them.
Maybe the most difficult concept to translate for Jews committed to the ritual and ethical practice of Judaism is represented by the word “observe.” The most common use of the word in English is as a synonym of “watch.” It is an action conducted primarily by the eyes directed at a person or object outside of one’s self. When you observe something, you set yourself at come distance and take note of what you see, ideally without interfering with whom or what you observe.
But when a Jew says they “observe” Shabbat or “observe” the dietary requirement of kashrut, they mean anything but detached examination. The person who sits back and watches the Sabbath will never have a day off of work, and the one who simply keeps an eye on how kosher food is produced will probably go hungry. Observing Jewish traditions means getting involved in the very messiness of interfering with them in their pristine forms. That’s because, in the end, even the most compulsively stringent observers have their own spin on how they do so. And as for those not quite so stringent…well, the other meaning of the Hebrew term for “observe” makes things more complicated.
The same word translated as “observe” when it comes to ritual practice also means “guard” or “protect” when something of value is at stake. The soldier at the gate, the chaperone at the children’s overnight, even God bear the title/descriptor that is the same as observer. In this context, observe and preserve seem to be synonymous.
I have written and spoken with some frequency about the essential role of change in any living entity. It is true biologically and it is true figuratively. No living creature remains unchanged, even if the rate of change is almost imperceptible. And no object that does not change is alive – it may be abiotic (that is, without life to begin with) or it may be dead (that is, formerly alive). So, while it may seem a contradiction in terms, both senses of the word “observe” are at play when we “take care to observe all the laws and rules.” In order to keep the instruction alive, we facilitate change. In order to keep the instruction from changing, we preserve it in its abiotic ideal.
Perhaps it is a little inside baseball to suggest that this framework can explain the manifold ways Jewish life expresses itself throughout history but at no time more so than the present. Some expressions of Jewish life put more emphasis on engagement and others on preservation, but adherents of each believe they are taking care to observe.
What is true of Judaism is true of every system of belief and culture. Observance, in the practical sense, is sometimes patriotism, politics, arts or sciences. Observance, in the preservative sense, is sometimes, well, patriotism, politics, arts or sciences. Mostly, it is understood from the inside.
So, what irony there is in acknowledging that the plain meaning of the English word “observe” is virtually irrelevant in its usage as translation. I guess, as the Italians say, traduttore, traditore.
STARS IN THE SKY
The Last of Deuteronomy
Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons in all; and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars of heaven. Deuteronomy 10:22
Among the casualties of modern times are analogies to nature. I think “grains of sand on the shore” is still a pretty big number in the minds of most, even when beach erosion and oceanfront construction has made that an objectively smaller comparison. But “cedars of Lebanon,” “the moon to rule the night” and certainly “the mighty Jordan River” (yeah…no) are figures of speech and not the experience of most readers. We have cut down the trees, turned on the lights and diverted the headwaters.
But worst of all is “as numerous as the stars of heaven.” Most of the population of North America live in or near a city of some size. Between the particle contaminants in the atmosphere and the light pollution from homes, office buildings and streetlamps, the abundance of stars we witness is really a fraction of what can be seen in more isolated locations. I was, well, starstruck the first time I looked up at dark in rural Wisconsin and saw the canvas on which the ancients imagined the constellations. And that was nothing compared to looking up from my sleeping bag in the Sinai desert on a moonless night and recognizing both my insignificance and my privilege in viewing that tableau.
More than a dozen years ago, at a synagogue event, my three kids offered their interpretations of my favorite verse from the Bible, Psalm 147:3-4, “the healer of broken hearts and binder of their wounds counts the number of stars and calls each one by name.” They rightly identified all the reasons it so appealed to me, and correctly noted that in another life I would have loved to have been an astronaut. Wow, to be a bit of protoplasm built of stardust, returning to the endless void that birthed us all! And still, floating untethered by any visible means to anything else, I might give off my own faintest of light that would, after billions of years, reach some distant destination to take my place among the uncountable stars and other objects beheld by others aspiring to the heavens!
Yeah, pretty over the top. But on a clear night at sea, on a mountaintop or in an isolated wilderness, you, too, would know what I mean.
A small number of people get to live some version of that dream. They spend a period of time in the International Space Station, orbiting the planet and performing the research that has already expanded the breadth and depth of human knowledge immeasurably. I imagine that the cramped quarters and isolation from human contact other than the few gets old pretty quickly. (Actually, there is less to imagine than there used to be before covid-19!) But would I do it, even today? In a heartbeat.
Fortunately, the flight of my imagination is easier to visualize despite light pollution and hazy skies. I installed an app on my phone that tracks the space station and tells me where to look in the night sky when it passes overhead. A point of light – neither twinkling like a little star nor blinking like a big old jet airliner – travels among the points of light making an arc from horizon to horizon. (You can find it for your device at https://www.issdetector.com/). On those nights that it passes over my house, I look up and watch it sail across the sky. Do I wave? Of course.
When the phrase “as numerous as the stars of heaven” was coined, nothing was known about them beyond the conjecture of a pre-scientific culture. When the assertion was made that God could count their number and name each one, you can be assured those names did not include Alpha-Centauri or Betelgeuse. The night-time sky was a welcome mystery, an analogue for the slightly less mysterious process of being fruitful and multiplying.
Today I cannot fathom how the letters I type on a keyboard wind up on a screen and then, at the push of a button, are whisked around the world. Someone has figured out the number of 1s and 0s and given each a name, creating constellations of information greater than the population to which we aspire. But as impressed as I am by that process, it pales next to awe I feel looking out on a moonless night hoping for a glimpse of the source of the stardust that bears my name.
The Last of Deuteronomy
Yet they are Your very own people, who You freed with Your great might and Your outstretched arm. Deuteronomy 9:29
Back in 1993, there was a wonderful little movie called “Indian Summer.” The plot was predictable, the cast was remarkable and one moment has stuck out for me for all these years. The camp director (Alan Arkin) was renowned for knowing the name of every camper. How did he keep all those kids straight? He would put his hand on the back of the neck of anyone he was talking to and gently peek at the name stamped inside their tee-shirt.
Who knows whether that is or was a camp director trick? But the notion that someone in charge knows your name is exceptionally affirming.
Rabbi Yaakov Rosenberg, of blessed memory, was a man larger than life – quite literally. “Yonk,” as we all knew him, was a big bear of a man. When he was driving, his car of choice was the Checker, those oversized cars with room in the back for four on the bench and two jump seats. Just as there was room in a Checker cab for six or more passengers, there seemed to be room in Yonk’s head and heart for an infinite number of acquaintances. If he met you once, he knew your name. If you ever told him your birthday, you would get a call or a card every year. If you shared the name of your beloved aunt in Poughkeepsie, Yonk would ask you about her whenever he saw you.
I once saw him stand in the middle of the ballroom of the Concord Hotel in the Catskills surrounded by 400 rabbis, ranging in age from 25 to 80. In order to raise some money for a project in Israel, he called out each rabbi’s name to find out their pledge. It was the most remarkable display of recall I had ever seen. He didn’t even have to check the inside of their shirts.
There was a time when my mind was more agile that I had a version of that superpower. I spent a year working part-time running weekend programs at a Jewish camp for families. At the first gathering, I would ask each family to introduce its members, and those names were mine all weekend. Unlike Yonk, I did (what would today be called) a data-dump every Sunday to make room for the next week’s visitors. And I knew better than to try to peek inside anybody’s tee-shirt.
Most of us are not blessed with Rabbi Rosenberg’s remarkable recall and the camp director’s trick would probably have us calling each other Nordstrom or Eileen Fisher. Yet, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of trying to remember peoples’ names. The power of naming is one of the first gifts to humanity noted in the story of creation, an acknowledgment not merely of identity, nor even of importance, but also of place in the world.
Anyone who has spent any time in the public eye knows the challenge of such recall. In my case, my years as a rabbi in a synagogue and an occasional itinerant speaker brought me into contact with tens of thousands of people, the vast majority of them guests at some life-cycle event or audience members at a lecture or panel discussion. If I had the good fortune to have said something that touched them (or the poor fortune to insult them!) they may have sought me out afterward for a conversation. That interaction was unique for them, a chance to have a singular personal encounter. For me, it might have been one of a dozen or more such interactions in less than an hour’s time.
I have been on the other side of those interactions myself. I have stood on rope lines and met public figures, or been invited to conversations with thought leaders, or taken a class with scholars of renown. The power of the handshake, the exchange or the in-class question that earned praise and response is lasting for me. There is always hope, but never expectation, that the momentary encounter will take up residence in the other person’s front-line memory.
It is painful on both sides when I have to ask someone to remind me who they are. Inevitably, they are embarrassed that they placed more importance on our previous encounter that I did. Inevitably, I make some kind of apology about my own shortcomings in not remembering. At that moment I always remember Yonk and the gift he had to affirm every acquaintance.
This little verse teaches that lesson as Moses recounts his pleading for the backsliding people to an angry God. They aren’t merely ingrates; they believe themselves important, individually and collectively, because God did for them what God does. God just needed to be reminded of who they are.
GOD HATES YOU
The Last of Deuteronomy
Like the nations that God will cause to perish before you, so shall you perish – because you did not heed the Lord your God. Deuteronomy 8:20
There is an independent Baptist church in the Midwest that has gained national notoriety by carrying a message of hate to every corner of the country. Unlike a lot of groups that are accused of purveying hate, this church is up front about it. Its picket signs are familiar at gay pride events, military funerals, the Supreme court and, why not, synagogues. At least one slogan among the many always includes the message “GOD HATES (your characteristic here).”
I have spent no time reflecting on their theology, which is somewhat peculiar for adherents of a tradition that celebrates God’s love and grace. But were I someone who read the Bible both literally and selectively, I could identify the exact place that would undergird the message of a vengeful deity who demands total obedience.
It’s this last verse of chapter 8 of Deuteronomy, and reading it brought this renegade band of proud hatemongers immediately to mind.
Ideas like this are a difficult challenge for people of faith. There is a temptation for believers to swat them away by claiming a broader context, or a superseding set of scriptural texts, or a different revelation, but this angry rhetoric turns up in more than one place and in more than one tradition. Whether you are convinced that your sacred text is divinely written or the product of inspired human transmission, suggesting a verse like this is not determinative requires denial or intentional misinterpretation.
It’s a pretty terrorizing assessment of the relationship between God and the devoted. In fact – forgive me the blasphemy – it sounds downright abusive. “I will love you and provide for you, but if you don’t do what I say, I will punish you, maybe even kill you.” It doesn’t matter what the nature of the transgression is (in this instance, it is alienation of appreciation and infidelity), such a conversation between lovers would be grounds for a restraining order. Okay, I am finished with the blasphemy.
I have no obligation to defend God, not that the Holy One needs it to begin with. The verse is not the only description of the consequences of transgression in the Bible, and it strikes me as an attempt to set boundaries that might be crossed by those who would presume an uninvited familiarity or, worse, parity with the Divine. For someone predisposed to seeing this warning as definitive, it is proof positive. But there is no denying that for someone predisposed to God-as-love, verses like this mean pretty tough love.
The members of that church must find some strange satisfaction in lifting up the dangerous side of devotion. Just as I can’t explain away the harshness of the Biblical threat, I can’t explain away the hatefulness of these believers. But if I am skeptical of their message, then I must be skeptical of anyone else who limits the nature of a limitless God. I will stick with mystery over certainty. There is less pressure to be correct.
But I do have a reaction to the public theology of these midwestern fanatics. I won’t respond in kind. I don’t find much satisfaction in going head-to-head with people determined to have such a sour view of humanity and such an unpleasant sense of rectitude about God.
They have been more successful than any of us hope (maybe except them). The mantra of “GOD HATES (insert political opponent here)” has gained favor throughout the land, part of the politics of confrontation that began at least three administrations ago with a set of angry and unscrupulous leaders of the House of Representatives. Their confrontational, take-no-prisoners style, combined with a set of ethics from Roy Cohn, have encouraged the right and the left alike to embrace abusive behavior. And what is worse is that at least some of them do it in the name of their reading of the Bible.
The human family has managed to splinter into enough subgroups to cover modern expressions of “the nations God will cause to perish.” That they are still alive and thriving, including that midwestern church, is a pretty good indication that the verse in question is not literally operative. This verse would not be the first pronouncement of absolutism that has been reconsidered, even by God, and certainly not the last. Maybe it is time to try something else.
The Last of Deuteronomy
You must not bring an abhorrent thing into your house, or you will be proscribed like it; you must reject it as abominable and abhorrent, as He has commanded us. Deuteronomy 7:26
Detestable, repugnant, loathsome, revolting, hateful, vile, abominable. We have so many words in English to express our disgust at something that is meant to be kept outside of our circle. The sense of revulsion with which these words are saturated is palpable.
People with less-sophisticated word choices will often choose an obscenity associated with bodily effluence and either pack it in a sack or minimize it to a single piece to get the same point across. The listener will understand the same sense of revulsion.
There are other words that have acquired derisive meanings, especially when they are attached to human beings different from the speaker. Washington, DC’s professional football team just dropped its name and mascot because of such a meaning – never mind that the guy who named it almost a century ago thought it was a compliment. Asians have been slurred with a roster of names that are remarkably specific geographically. I’m not sure whether Arabs should be pleased or insulted that the scornful names they are called do not discriminate among their nations or cultures. Natives of Central and South America already had their own collection of disparaging slanders before they were pasted with “criminals, rapists, and drug-dealers” in the last presidential campaign. Even Europeans, when they are too closely identified with stereotypical personality traits courtesy of localized bigotry, find themselves called by some derivative of their country or culture when neighbors wish to diminish them.
How can I write about these noxious nicknames without mentioning the two groups that seem to suffer most, especially in the United States?
White people have been so effective in labels of oppression that there is still no lasting consensus, even among Black people, of what the appropriate way is to describe a person of African heritage. Even with the slowly evolving consensus that some names are intolerable, in my lifetime the respectful way to refer to members of the Black community has changed at least six times. If you need proof that the adage “names will never hurt me” is a bald-faced lie, this ought to be it. Of course, the infamous “n-word,” so pervasive that even Black subculture has adopted it, remains the most reprehensible utterance in modern discourse.
In fact, it is so inappropriate that some years ago a (White) public official in DC used a synonym for “cheap” in a budget discussion – niggardly – and lost his job because of the uproar. Though he was later reinstated, I cannot remember seeing that word again since then until I typed it here.
The other group, of course, is my own: the Jews. Even our proper name – Jew – is a slang term for, uh, niggardly. When playing Scrabble, you cannot use Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jain, or Buddhist (and not because, like Zoroastrianism or Scientology, they are too long), but “jew” is perfectly acceptable in the meaning of trying to get an undeserved bargain. The collection of derogatory names is so comprehensive that it is almost impossible to make reference to Jews without someone, somewhere hearing a dog-whistle. There are even some (not I) who believe the word “Jew” should never be used; collectively we are “the Jewish community” and individually we are “Jewish.”
Today, rightly so, people are exquisitely sensitive to the connotations of name-calling. It is bigoted behavior to use a slur, and even the deployment of those labels in art, entertainment or protest are less and less tolerable. Using them to indicate that someone is detestable is dehumanizing and itself detestable.
It is a truth that the Bible commands us dozens of times to consider the stranger (that is, someone different from ourselves) with love and kindness because we know what it is like to be strangers to others. No one should use crude and hateful names for someone, especially someone we mean to embrace.
The phrase for “abominable” in the verse above is shakeitz t’shak’tzena. It is from this phrase that the colloquial way some Jews refer to non-Jewish women and men is derived. A shiksa is a detestable thing. A sheigetz is an abomination. Never, ever, ever use those words.
The Last of Deuteronomy
It will therefore be to our merit before the Lord our God to observe faithfully this whole instruction, as He has commanded us. Deuteronomy 6:25
In my work, I spend a lot of time with a small part of the Constitution of the United States. The first two clauses of the First Amendment deal with the vexing role of religion in society. Lots of breath has been exhaled and even more ink spilled on what it means to freely exercise spiritual conscience and even more on the question of what “establishment” means, and by whom.
But it is absolutely true that even if I consider those two phrases the essence of liberty, they aren’t the only rights in that amendment, and they are far from the only concerns of the Constitution – even without the amendments that followed the original ten.
Advocates far to my right politically and theologically insist that the primacy of position is indisputable evidence of primacy of authority. Yet, as committed as I am to the place of religion and faith, I recognize that the United States is governed by the whole of the document. It is the Constitution that contextualizes its parts, not any one or more parts that contextualize the Constitution.
Though I think about this notion a lot, I have been thinking about it more in these weeks since the death of Cong. John Lewis, of truly blessed memory. The cadre of civil rights pioneers is dwindling – we have now lost three in this past year – and the retrospectives on their lives have brought comparisons to my mind. I have nothing but admiration for the likes of Reverends Joseph Lowrey and C.T. Vivian (both of whom it was my honor to meet), the other two luminaries we lost this year. Their devotion to the cause of voting rights, full equality for all citizens and the beloved community was played out almost entirely in the communities they chose/were chosen to service: the Black community. I see them as analogous to the role of Rabbi Avi Weiss in his Jewish community – insisting that he has an obligation to Jews and their interests that is no less than his obligation to others.
Mr. Lewis – whom I was privileged to know – had a more holistic approach. He was a man completely opposed to inequality and inequity. It is fair to say that his voice was most appreciated by the Black community and therefore highlighted most when his life and legacy were discussed. But John’s commitment to the dignity of every person was unbounded by race. He was a willing ally (and even a leading voice) of people of all faiths, nationalities, orientations and philosophies. His trust in the American ethos was such that he believed it had room to protect and celebrate even those with whom he disagreed – except if they sought to frustrate those protections and celebrations. It may have seemed to some that “his issue” was civil rights or, even more narrowly, voting rights. But you don’t get to be known as the Conscience of Congress as a one-issue advocate.
I will never be the man John Lewis was, though he remains an example to me of the power of personal integrity. He went deeper into that integrity as his perspective widened. His commitment to all people being created equal was not limited to his own interests, rather in principle and practice to all of the human family. He believed in all of the Constitution and the just laws that flowed from it, that is, the whole thing. He could not abide those who would insist that those parts that benefited their privilege could be defended as more important than the mission of our nation: to secure the blessings of liberty to (all of) us and our (entire) posterity.
I deeply believe that the protection of conscience (which is what “free exercise” is all about) and the protection from enforced beliefs (which is what “non-establishment” is all about) are core values. Without them, the Constitution is incomplete. But I can make the same claim about seemingly less-universal concerns like Congress’s ability to set the President’s compensation, or the prohibition of alcohol and subsequent repeal, or the minimum age of suffrage.
We are often bombarded with the outrage of people whose religious autonomy I seek to defend. Some insist that reproductive health care policy should be governed by their faith perspective. Some insist that other religious traditions than their own present a threat to their notion of America. Some insist that they have a protected right to celebrate their faith in public circumstances at public expense. I believe they seek to privilege themselves at the cost of the whole Constitution. The irony, perhaps, is that Constitution cannot be upheld only by the actions of one person or one subset of people. The whole thing demands the whole thing.
I also believe that the verse that prompts my thinking means the same thing within a faith tradition – in this case, my own. Some insist that a ritual observance is the necessary and sufficient part of the Torah. Some insist a particular mandate to pursue justice or love your neighbor is all you need. Some insist there are only ten mandates that mean anything, or a singular expectation to love the Creator. Nonsense. It is to our merit collectively, and with our best integrity individually, to faithfully uphold the whole thing.