Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
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.
The Last of Deuteronomy
Follow only the path that the Lord your God has enjoined upon you so that you may thrive and that it may go well with you, and that you may long endure in the land that you are about to possess Deuteronomy 5:30
There seems to be a perpetual conversation among policymakers about how to motivate people to do the right thing. While everyone agrees that a law-based society like the United States proclaims to be needs rules, and while all but the sociopaths among us agree that laws apply to everyone equally, the role of regulation in our country is the subject of some disagreement.
Certainly, there are some things that are illegal to prevent people from doing them. Aside from big prohibitions like murder and theft, there are smaller (though no less significant) laws that are designed to prevent drunk driving, fouling common areas with trash or effluence, and loosing pets. These laws are about respect for the well-being of others, safe conduct and/or the ability of most (if not all) to have quiet enjoyment of their community.
And certainly, there are some things that are designed to collect revenue to enable government to function by funding first responders, education, physical infrastructure and the like. It is correct, I think, that without a tax structure – whatever it is – the citizenry would not volunteer enough money to support local, state or federal government to conduct itself in the manner to which it has become accustomed.
And certainly, there are some pieces of legislation that are designed to address inequality or inequity that would otherwise create unfair disadvantages for some. Physical accessibility, the ability to cast a vote, a fair chance to purchase a home – these are but a few of the things that, without specific legislation, were not available equally or equitably to all the people created equal in our country.
I like laws. Though I may flout convention from time to time, I have always considered laws to be the way we agree to do the right thing. I like to think I wouldn’t lie, cheat or steal anyway, but I get satisfaction knowing that I am in good company. And, as I have said before, I consider paying taxes a privilege. (That’s not to say I enjoy it, but I see the value for my dollars.)
A well-known (at least by me) Talmudic teaching admonishes us to be faithful to God’s instruction for the sake of being faithful. “Be not like the servant who serves the master with an expectation of a reward,” it says. “Rather, be like the servant who serves the master without expectation of a reward.” There are enough anachronisms in that teaching to distract from its essential message, but it boils down to this: do the right thing because it is the right thing.
I have this teaching in mind constantly as I listen to debates about what is often derisively called “welfare.” Legislators who oppose government-funded support for the poor and unemployed will frequently argue against what they consider to be overly generous payments on the basis that it will discourage recipients from seeking jobs. It is more an insight into the legislator than the recipients when the former puts words into the mouth of the latter: Why should I work if I can make more by staying home?
I am sure some people will game the system if they can take better care of their loved ones with a government grant than an inadequate paycheck. But I imagine that being encouraged by a “servant of the people” to do the right thing, combined with their own desire to live a productive life would engender better results than being accused of being a laggard, only in it for the money. Better, I think, to appeal to our better selves than to be disrespected and offered a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I like to imagine that this Talmudic teaching, though coined by Antigonus (a Jewish scholar with a Greek name) many hundreds of years after Deuteronomy, is a reaction to the notion expressed in the verse above. We should not do the right thing “so that it may go well with [us],” expecting a reward for our service to the just and the good, rather because it is the right thing to do. As Antigonus concluded his teaching, it will keep us in God’s awesome presence.
The Last of Deuteronomy
Also the whole Arava on the east side of the Jordan, as far as the sea of Arava, at the foot of the slopes of Pisgah. Deuteronomy 4:49
You can have your Cat in the Hat and your Grinch. For my money, the best story by Dr. Seuss is “Yertle the Turtle.” Since I first heard it when I was a mere sprout of a lad, I loved it. The name cracks me up. The premise (more in a moment) is delightful. And the denouement, if you can use such a word about a children’s book, involves the first appearance in a published children’s book of the word “burp.” Plus, my uneducated ears heard in the character’s name football great Y.A.Tittle, itself the source of a certain hilarity.
What more can you ask for?
In case your copy is missing, here is the premise: Yertle is the king of the pond, declaring himself the ruler of all he can see. When he discovers that the higher up he sits, the more he can see, he recruits a turtle named Mack and eight others to serve as his throne, and then more and more turtles to sit one atop the other so that King Yertle can increase his sovereignty as “ruler of all that I see.” Yertle’s downfall (literally) occurs when he attempts to stack his subjects higher than the moon. Poor Mack, at the bottom of the teetering tower of testudines (thank you very much), has the misfortune to burp, toppling the column and sending Yertle into the mud below.
Dr. Seuss was quite open about the book being a parable about Adolf Hitler and was pleased to have it understood about authoritarianism in general. And I know, now that I have written the “H” word, that some readers will understand me to be drawing another parallel. Restrain yourselves.
Throughout history, lots of people who find themselves in positions of authority have misunderstood the source of their power. It may be that in our democracy, the consent of the governed is necessary to be put in charge, but even in much smaller social ecosystems (marriage, clubs, faith communities, the playground) it requires humility and respect to avoid overreaching. If the goal of an individual is to remain, even increase their power and influence, sooner or later they will attempt to persuade others to devote themselves to the person, not the cause. And they will acquire as much as they can of whatever represents that power and influence.
For Yertle, it was “all I can see.” For the greedy, it is money. For sexual predators, it is adoring acolytes. For narcissists, it is (mostly undue) praise – and revenge against critics. But if we are going to be honest, it is usually about real estate. Kings and other potentates, right through to today’s national entities, want land, and mostly more land than they have need for.
That’s not to say that such an aggregation of control over territory does not have some beneficial result in certain circumstances. The acquisition of what is now the United States from sea to shining sea involved a variety of conquests or negotiations, none of which acknowledged the rights of the indigenous peoples. But for all the faults belatedly recognized, no one seriously suggests the dissolution of the republic.
When Moses beheld the land he was not to enter, it included a prominent mountain east of the Jordan river and an expanse of land surrounding and south beyond (what we now call) the Dead Sea. Many tribes lived in that land. Today it is an uncontested part of Jordan. But there it is in the Bible, vouchsafed to the Israelites.
Yertles are everywhere, from local zoning commissioners to presumptive leaders of global empires. Climbing onto the backs of the people who give them authority, they try to expand their power and influence by land-grabs justified by rationales as earnest as they are specious.
When that happens, someone should burp.