Tuesday, January 27, 2009


This week’s Torah portion is Ekev, the third Parsha in the Book of Deuteronomy or D’varim. In last week’s Parsha we encountered the Shema, which was given as and has been for 3400 years the center of Judaism. Now in this Parsha we have a whole set of admonitions under the general rubric in one of the early verses that “as a man disciplines his son, so God disciplines you. The verb יסו can be translated as discipline (verb), chastise, punish, or admonish. So in last week we are commanded to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might,” and this week we are commanded not only to love but also to obey.

I was brought up on the Orthodox side of Conservative Judaism, and was taught that the Torah was, in its entirety, God’s word – אל פי יי ביד משה – and I never really gave that much thought at t the time. Later I came to question it, mainly because there are so many contradictions and inconsistencies in the Torah. It just didn’t seem to me that God would be quite that inconsistent or that, as the Talmudists did and still do, we were to treat God’s word as a riddle to be endlessly unraveled, with the “correct” answers forever hidden from us. Also, while Moses was a great prophet, it stretches belief to think that he not only wrote the entire book, which is a reiteration and emendation of the first four books, and particularly the story of the Exodus and the journey in the Desert, including his own death and burial and ending with the statement that there has never come to Israel an prophet that was Moses’ equal.

Actually, Bible scholars have said that the Book of Deuteronomy was written much later than the rest of the Torah, probably sometime in the 7th Century BCE. This means, of course, that it could not have been written by Moses, but rather is some scholar or scholars’ recap of what they feel is important in the Torah – one may argue that it is divinely inspired, but in any case it was written in a very different cultural setting than that of the earlier books, particularly if we assume that the first four books were written at the time they occurred, which was some 700 years earlier than the scholars say that Deuteronomy.

I think the important point here is that cultural difference. The world of the time of the Exodus was a very different one from that of the 7th Century – the first was a world of tribes and small communities – cities were unknown and kings ruled small areas and relatively small numbers of people – they were more like tribal chiefs. By the time of the writing of Deuteronomy Israel was a nation, there were cities, and the country had been ruled by kings for at least 300 years since Saul. This was the context in which Deuteronomy was written, and I think that’s important.

Next week will be the last service I lead, at least for a while, and the experience of writing and delivering divrei Torah almost weekly has been an interesting opportunity to develop some thinking and to study the Torah in a much more continuous and integrated way than I had done before. One of the themes that has emerged from me both in these Friday night talks and also in my classes with Jim Beebe on Saturday morning is what I experience as a huge gulf between the teachings of religion, including Judaism, and the institutions of religion. A key element in which I feel the teachings have been distorted is in divisions, separations, and hierarchies.

The Shema teaches us that God is unity – conversely that in unity, one-ness, we find God. Yet in the very next parsha we are told that God is somehow separate, will chastise us, and expects our obedience. Let’s see if that makes sense in terms of the earlier parts of the Torah.
Go all the way back to Genesis and the story of Adam and Eve, and let’s assume that this whole episode is a metaphor – we aren’t meant to believe literally that there were two people who were the origin of the human race – the inbreeding issue alone would make that unlikely and a bit unpalatable. So we have this story of a man and a woman, i.e, the whole of humanity, in a state of blissful ignorance and naïveté, living in a perfect environment, with only one fly in the ointment – that there is a fruit that will, on the one hand, give them knowledge they don’t have and on the other hand take away the perfection of their world. We are told that the knowledge is of “good and evil,” but never told what, exactly that means, but the consequence of their gaining that knowledge is that they are expelled from and forever barred from Paradise.

I think it may be that it was not that Adam and Eve gained some new information or knew something different than they knew before, but rather that it was the symbolic act of eating the fruit that was the source of the change in their world. As long as they were one with their world, wandering around the Garden, encountering God from time to time for a chat, generally not knowing there was any “other” they lived in perfection. To “disobey God” is to separate oneself – God is God and I am me, and we are separate and different. That is, for me, the nature of sin – anything that separates us from God is evil, anything that brings us closer to God is good, and that was the “knowledge of good and evil” that was not just gained, but created in the so-called fall. God is unity, unity is God, and separation is, at heart, an illusion, but a powerful one that has been with us since the dawn of consciousness.
A consequence of this original separation (“original sin”) is that it became pervasive for humanity – parents became separate from their children, men from women, rich from poor, educated from uneducated, etc. From separation to hierarchy is a small step – if we are separate from God and God is great, all-powerful, our Father our King, then we are less than God, and if “less than” is inherent in separation, and power differential is the basis of “less than,” then anyone who is more powerful is above those who are less powerful. Men are stronger than women, so men rule women; the rich can buy more than the poor, so the rich rule the poor. The educated have more knowledge and information than the uneducated so the educated rule the uneducated. One scholar divides society in Biblical times into the destitute, the poor, the merchant class, the retainers and the rulers. By the 10th Century BCE the Jewish people were sufficiently enculturated to hierarchy to demand that a kingdom be established.

This is one major area where teaching and religion part company. The teaching is unity – we are all one and one with God, sin is that which separates us from God (and by extension from each other), and hierarchy is institutionalized separation; thus says the teaching. Might is right, the powerful rule the powerless, the king rules by divine right – the higher up the hierarchy you go, the closer you come to God, and those near the bottom are farthest from God, therefore sinful and to be ruled by those closer to God; thus says religion, and so we have kings, popes, and presidents, and clergy with the supposed authority to speak to us for God and vice versa. Great job security for clergy, but a perversion of the teaching.
And most importantly, with separation comes demonization of “the other.” Christianity supposedly supercedes Judaism as the “true faith,” Christian denominations quarrel over whose version of religion is right, Hindus and Moslems kill each other and create separate countries, and on and on, all in the name of God, but divorced from God’s teachings.

If God is unity, should we not all be unified? It’s entirely possible that the floods in various parts of the world are God weeping.

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