The Last of Deuteronomy
Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced. Deuteronomy 20:20
In our family, we tried to impose a rule at the dinner table. It was declared a QFZ – a “quote-free zone” – in an attempt to avoid the replay of scenes from movies like “Zoolander” from dominating the conversation. My wife and I had modest success, yet to this day our adult children, each with their own dinner table, deal with the intrusion of popular entertainment on the evening meal. At least I don’t have to hear from Strongbad anymore.
If I am going to be honest, however, I have to own my personal transgressions. We once saw a play on Broadway that was a drawing-room farce called “The Norman Conquests.” (The main character was a guy named Norman.) In the cast was Ken “The White Knight” Howard, who had one line, spoken in response to everything directed at him: Ah. It is a staple of interaction between me and my wife. Likewise, the self-abnegating exclamation, “I blame-a myself,” spoken by Steve “Georg Festrunk” Martin on Saturday Night Live, pops up almost anytime that, well, I blame-a myself.
When I see this instruction about laying siege to a city during wartime, it reminds me of another quotation that took up residence in my repertoire – though, thankfully, not in real-life circumstances. This permission to use trees for their wood follows a prohibition of cutting down trees that bear edible fruit. And that permission follows the requirement to call for peaceful surrender, even if belligerence between the two parties has transformed opponents into enemies. There is no fighting until the rules have been explained.
Millennia later, Butch Cassidy is challenged by another outlaw for leadership of their gang. The presumptive replacement chooses knives for the confrontation. Butch refuses to begin until the rules are clear. “Rules in a knife fight?” says the other guy, as Butch approaches. Before anything else is said, Butch lands a boot between the other guy’s legs. As he collapses to his knees, Butch tells Sundance, “Say one-two-three go,” which Sundance does very quickly. Butch ends the fight with a two-handed uppercut.
Rules in a knife fight? What a ridiculous concept. If the purpose is to win, then the only concern rightly ought to be who is left standing. Likewise, in besieging a city – that is, trapping the residents inside in the attempt to defeat them – what possible use could there be for rules? Any delay, any restriction might result in catastrophe for the combatants. And while it is the case that the nations of the world, in peaceful times, established conventions for the treatment of civilians and combatants in wartime, it is easy to see how they might be ignored by a military desperate to win.
It takes someone of deeper conviction than the will to win to embrace and enforce the ethic of war. It takes someone who understands – as this verse insists – that looking beyond the moment of battle or even the end of hostilities is the wisest course of action. When a winner emerges, the survivors (numerous, we hope) will have to eat. Cutting down shade trees for battlements might be necessary but cutting down fruit trees puts the future at risk when the war is over.
I have been watching (and resisting) a shift in the way our federal government has approached education over the past four years. Under previous administrations, public schools were the top priority of the Department of Education, a primacy that was mirrored on the state and, especially, local level. But the DOE has been led by someone philosophically opposed to the dominance of public institutions in educating the next generation of Americans. It is a little hard to suss out her exact reasons, but there seems to be an overwhelming dose of religious fervor in her campaign to fund so-called school choice. More than science or civics, she believes a proper education must reflect the values that a family (presumably) wishes to inculcate in the kids and, by extension, in society.
All of our personal children spent much of their education in private schools with a Jewish foundation. We sought no public money to make that happen. We also paid our taxes gladly (no kidding) in support of the public school systems from kindergarten to university. Our choice of Jewish schools did not exempt our kids from curricular parity with the schools they might otherwise have attended. And the seats they did not fill when they were not in the public system were not ours to cash in – they provided fruits that sustained the siege against ignorance that is the constant battle of civic society and the educators who lead the charge, until ignorance has been reduced.
Rules in a fight over full funding for public education? Say one-two-three-go.
The Last of Deuteronomy
Nor you must show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. Deuteronomy 19:21
If there is any instruction in the Jewish Bible that is used to criticize it more than “an eye for an eye,” I don’t know what it is. Jewish skeptics, Christian supersessionists, chauvinists from other traditions and secularists have pointed to the barbarity of a system that holds the potential to create a society of blind, dentally challenged amputees. If this is God’s instruction, they say, we can do without this kind of god.
Apologists for the Bible itself will sometimes demand consideration of its context. The instruction, they claim, is about the punishment fitting the crime, and about the equality of perpetrator and victim. It is to be an eye and only an eye for an eye. A wealthy or powerful perpetrator or one who is a skilled artisan cannot claim their hand is worth more than a poor and unskilled victim.
In fact, an extremely long discussion of ten possibilities to understand this instruction literally takes place in the Talmud. What if a dwarf put out the eye of a giant? What if a blind person put out the eye of a sighted person? What if someone was so faint of heart that imposing the penalty would not merely blind him but kill him? The conclusion (which is actually reached before the arguments take place) is that the Biblical text uses a shorthand to declare that the penalty is the value of an eye for an eye, not actual physical retribution. In modern terms, the perpetrator pays compensatory and punitive damages.
The Bible itself offers a similar workaround for another example of retribution. Ancient codes of conduct allowed for revenge killings in the case of manslaughter, that is, when one person unintentionally causes the death of another without malice aforethought. But in the next breath (well, set of verses), the Israelites are instructed to establish cities of refuge to which a manslayer could flee and enjoy safety from the next-of-kin.
Not being a Biblical literalist (or, perhaps, originalist) myself, I feel no need to defend the apparent plain instruction for retribution. And no matter the absurdity of some of the arguments in the Talmud, I am satisfied that almost from the beginning of what became Jewish law, nobody really believed this cruel punishment was right or just – even if it was there as God’s instruction in black and white.
For all this repudiation, retribution still manages to have a place in modern society. In some subcultures, it is quite literal; criminal enterprises have notoriously employed it against rivals. Art and literature (both high and low) build fantasies around just desserts that result in appropriate suffering for guilty characters. And nowhere is retribution more popular than in the blood sport that has become American politics.
If you were wondering where I was headed with this exposition, you have arrived at the answer. The most contentious political season in my memory has ended. (Perhaps more accurately, it has paused.) The chasm between the two candidates for president has not closed; it merely has been rendered irrelevant now that the polls are officially closed. The attempts of the candidates to inflict damage on each other were more than hostile, and too many of their followers tried to emulate their political champions. Now that there is a victor, there may be taste for retribution against those whose hopes have been dashed by the electorate.
I urge everyone to resist the impulse. I am certain that I am not the only one who feels I have been injured by the last four years of chaos. Civil discourse, an early casualty, may not be so easy to resurrect, but it is necessary, most especially among neighbors. Personal denigration ought to be forgiven on the condition that it end. And public policy should be debated and decided with dignity.
But most of all, everyone should eschew punitive actions against former opponents. If there were transgressions of the law, they should be investigated and prosecuted based on evidence. But bad behavior – from the mildest to the most egregious – is justified if it is returned in kind. It will become ensconced as the new norm.
We are all having enough trouble living in a world terrorized by a virus. We don’t need to create a society of blind, dentally challenged amputees.
The Last of Deuteronomy
If the prophet speaks in the name of the Lord and the oracle does not come true, the oracle was not spoken by the Lord; the prophet has uttered it presumptuously; do not stand in dread of him. Deuteronomy 18:22
The long courtship of the American voter has come to a momentary halt. Those among us who were persuaded to do the right thing – formally choose our candidates for elected office – are in a honeymoon period with the winners. These are the days when our hopes are highest that the promises made to secure our support will become the standards of the next term of service.
Of course, if this isn’t your first rodeo, you have developed some measure of cynicism about whether the promises made on the campaign trail will be kept. It is a fact that no one other than a despot, large or local, can implement their preferences without collaboration from others. So, “I will lower your taxes” or “I will find you a job” or “I will keep your children safe” is aspirational. Perhaps the skill of the leader to make progress on the platform that they represented is really what those promises were all about.
But no one captured the skepticism that mitigates hope better than those two observers of the human condition, Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. They weren’t pundits assessing the political climate in the tumultuous days of 1966. They wrote about love and betrayal in their R&B classic “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Gladys Knight, John Fogerty, cartoon raisins and, most memorably, Marvin Gaye were among the most famous artists to sing the third verse: People say believe half of what you see; oh, and none of what you hear…
Apparently, the tradition of cultivated incredulity goes back to the Bible. As you may recognize if you think about it even a little, lots of things take place in the narrative because someone claims, “God said so.” (The text usually wound up in the more literary form of “Thus sayeth the Lord.”) The prophet was not so much someone who could predict future occurrences as someone who could channel God’s instruction in the shorter- or longer-term. So how was an individual, a group or a tribe to know whether the oracle presented by a claimant to divine insight was reliable, delusional or an opportunistic lie?
The Biblical answer is remarkably practical and modern for a source so spiritual and old. It is this: wait and see. If the prophet suggests something that will validate the vision, have patience. If it happens, the visionary spoke the truth. If not, it was made up. A false prophet likely never got a second chance.
There is a serious dilemma with this approach to credibility, especially if the prophet is urging commitment to a course of action that is meant to avoid catastrophe (marauding enemies, impending plagues, divine wrath, to name a few). Waiting to see if the zombies actually are going to rise from the ground and eat our flesh before we begin preparations is only the right choice if the zombies remain dormant. Or, a bit more seriously, waiting until hurricanes and fires ravage the environment before we take steps to curtail our contributions to climate change is only the right choice if those things never happen.
Campaign promises are not the same things as Biblical prophecies, though we sometimes treat them that way. Given the number of times over the past year or so we have heard political opponents accuse each other of falling down on their (previous) jobs, you might think that their aspirations are frustrated only by their personal shortcomings – or their blatant dishonesty. That may be true some of the time, but an equal ingredient is the unreasonable expectation of supporters that the best possible outcome is only one election away.
When the moment comes to deliver on prophecy or promise, someone will be disappointed. It is not human nature to suspend hopes and expectations. Those who want a prophet will be let down by a fraud. Those who were convinced that change was going to come will be disheartened if the tally goes against them. A better approach, at this moment, is to commit to the outcome we desire. If I was ready to work hard to get my contender elected, then my efforts have only begun.
I think that’s the only way to get it done. At least it is what I heard through the grapevine.
The Last of Deuteronomy
Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel. Deuteronomy 17:20
As I have said many times, I believe in the goodness of government. I mean that in both senses: I believe both that government is a good thing, and that government should be good.
The Bible does not necessarily endorse any particular form of government, although it is pretty obvious that the default style of government is a monarchy. Even Israelite tribal entities have a king-like structure. The chieftain is ordinarily the eldest son of the eldest son, and he represents the rest of the tribe in its interests in the larger nation.
Every nation-tribe the Israelites encounter has a king. There are also priests, prophets, generals, and other officials encountered along the narrative, but the natural assumption is that government is led by a king.
As Judaism developed, the sovereignty of a king was so well entrenched that even God became known as the king. In fact, to make the point of God’s ultimate supremacy, the semi-official title became “the king of kings of kings.” Jews who welcome in shabbat with a traditional hymn will recognize this description, chanted with reverence and affection.
Nowhere are we instructed to have a king. In fact, the Israelites are cautioned against it, but God knows the people will want to be like all the other nations and demand a king of their own. So, with an almost audible sigh that we can still hear every time we read about it, rules are regulations are set up for this eventual king. Yes, he gets to be in charge, but he is restrained from using the office as an opportunity to enrich himself beyond the needs of the office. He may not establish a harem. He may not collect a personal stable. He may not start expeditionary wars. And he is required to write a copy of the Torah for himself and to keep it handy at all times, to remind himself that he is not above its instruction.
So, it may not be that the Bible considers the only real government it knows such a good thing, but it does require that government to be good.
The king is authorized by being anointed, that is, having consecrating oil poured on his head by a priest. And once so anointed, his authority becomes hereditary…sort of. If he is a good king who finds favor in the eyes of the Lord, as the saying goes, then he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel.
The king was not elected. Democracy as a form of government was unheard of in the time of Moses. Even to speak of the democratization of authority is anachronistic. People may have acclaimed a king, but they never voted for one, never mind with secret ballots or competitive campaigns. Each year at what today we call Rosh HaShanah the king’s reign aged. When the king died, abdicated, or was deposed, someone else took his place. A good king – or at least a powerful one – was succeeded by one of his sons.
Kingship, like everything else, was attributed to God’s will back then. Performing God’s will made a king good, an opportunity open to every human being. But if a king was good, then his constituency benefited. And if he wasn’t, then the people prayed for God to turn him out. Or they killed him and installed another.
I’m no anarchist and I’m no libertarian. The people I know in government are overwhelmingly good people – even the ones with whom I disagree. Some of them are notably not, but there is a less draconian remedy should someone somehow ascend to the head of modern government who is not worthy of the post. During their term, they answer to the government itself. And as their term ends, they are subject to being deposed by the will of the people. Government is a good thing.
It’s a great solution that wasn’t thought of when kings were kings. You won’t find democracy in the Bible, let alone the details of representative government. For someone who might describe themself as a “Biblical government originalist,” all sorts of conditions are unmet and, frankly, never formally amended. Just sayin’.
Nonetheless, this mostly faithful Jew believes in the goodness of government.
The Last of Deuteronomy
or erect a stone pillar, for such the Lord your God detests. Deuteronomy 16:22
A very long time ago (in my life, that is), I was a student in a pristine building that was the newest iteration of a venerated educational institution. The setting was magnificent, the facilities modern, the change from the previous location breathtaking. Unsurprisingly, about five months into the academic year, a dedication for the campus was scheduled. Suddenly, plaques started showing up everywhere. Large brass signs were installed on expanses of wall. Letters paying tribute to donors were affixed above doorways and walkways. Smaller signage appeared near windows and on furniture.
I was offended, as only a young and self-confident man could be, that with all the learning and teaching and good works going on in this new building, it was people with money who were going to be honored. I was pretty vocal about it to the administration, and the president of the university, who was also one of my professors, actually devoted a day of class to discussing the concern. He made no attempt to defend the practice of naming structures for generous donors; he acknowledged it as a convention and something necessary to secure the kind of capital funding needed to create the space for learning. Instead, he talked about the donors themselves. He wanted us to know who they were – people he had gotten to know when he was younger and they were poorer, and what the values were that they embraced before they had money to put where their mouths were.
I can acknowledge all these years later what my prejudices were about rich people (not many of whom I actually knew), which was a reflection of my attitudes about money in general when I didn’t have any. But the lesson of that day, and of my experiences over the longer haul, is that being rich doesn’t make you a person undeserving of recognition.
A few years later, in a different city, I had a conversation with a retired New York City social worker. I asked him about the lessons he learned about people in his job. He responded that the most important thing he learned was the truth of what his own father had told him as he began his career – but that he did not want to believe. It was this: just because you are poor does not mean you are a good person.
The lesson I took from that pair of experiences is that money has nothing to do with character. Like every other measurable commodity in life, it is what you do with what you have that is an indication of your values. If you project your personal worth onto your net worth, any correlation will be accidental.
Putting your own name on a building (as opposed to honoring someone’s finer qualities with a tribute to their acts or generosity) is most certainly a matter of ego. It has never been an option for me, so I cannot represent the thought process that goes into a decision to slap my name on brick and mortar, but I do believe there is a sense that, by doing so, a permanence of some kind is secured. We know that’s not true, of course. Buildings rise and fall, and lately even monuments seem to have an expiration date. But investing a sense of recognition, power and longevity in construction is an old mistake. To use an old pun, call it the edifice complex.
I get it, I must say. Stones seem to have more permanence that lives. They have been around longer, generally resist deterioration and have “witnessed” the rise and fall of circumstances and even civilizations. Among those fallen civilizations were those that attributed such longevity to a corresponding divinity. Stone pillars, assembled from raw materials or carved into likenesses, were fetishistic representations of pagan gods. The Bible’s innovation – a deity without a (permanent) physical manifestation – stands against the inclination to make the false equivalency between spiritual permanence and physical permanence.
Likewise, human beings who feel powerless may very well turn to the relative impenetrability of a solid structure. After all, a rock feels no pain. But in the end, relying on such a structure is hollow trust. Putting up a building, erecting a monument to yourself, constructing a wall to make a case for your own greatness – all of those things are insights not into wealth, but into personal poverty. It’s easy to see why it makes someone detestable.
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.