Re'eh - on false gods, on forgiving debts, and on food choices

Once again in this parshah we have violent imagery for how the people should smash the idols of others, and even kill those who are tempted by other Gods. Religious warfare is something that the Jews know too well – for we have been its victims for too long. We read with discomfort the idea that a man should even kill a family member who has been praying to a false God. Religious piety can lead some people to do good. It can also lead some people to do horrible things, all in the name of God. Those who claim that the Torah is the source of morality must also acknowledge that it can be read equally as a source of immorality. Humanistic Jews are critical of all religious fundamentalism, including (and especially) on the part of Jews themselves. One’s own beliefs are one’s business, but religious should never give one permission to infringe on the rights of others.

This parshah brings up the idea of a false prophet – how is one to know which prophet is more legitimate and, by extension, which God more powerful? Deuteronomy limits the power of prophecy, admitting that “signs and wonders” can be faked. Moses Mendelsohn, the important Jewish philosopher, agrees with the textual view that “miracles are not the distinguishing mark of Truth” because “false prophets too can perform signs.” Truth is more complex and deep than can be revealed through the “signs” that some people look for. Indeed, we need to find our own truth and live according to the integrity of doing what we believe to be right, coming from our intrinsic sense of morality and goodness, and not from an external source.

Much of the regulation here about how to deal with the false prophet, and those swayed by him (e.g. death on the spot), resembles Neo-Assyrian loyalty treaties that ensure loyalty on the part of subjects in the land (JPS commentators). This is significant because it shows that some of the language that gets used to implore religious devotion was actually taken from documents trying to exert human power. It is a sign that, despite the ways in which this parshah stresses utter separation from the surrounding culture, the Torah itself borrows from the surrounding culture in many instances.

The issue of how to remain distinct while living amongst others is stressed particularly at this moment, when the Israelites are just about to enter the land. It is a moment of transition and of crossing. Things will never be the same again, and this consciousness is palpable. In spite of all of the destruction the text advises, it also seeks ways for the people to create peace. Rules for tzedakah are given in this parshah, such as rules for tithing and the shmita (sabbatical) year. Debts are to be forgiven (note: this is only for those within the community – foreign debts may stand), so that poverty does not become entrenched in the community. These rules were not necessarily followed, and we can imagine scenarios in which they would create chaos. But the metaphor of shmita - release - is a beautiful one. If we could imagine debts being forgiven, release from all obligation, and a society built around striving for fairness, we could certainly achieve a more harmonious society. This is what the writers, some suggest, are trying to achieve.The rules for tzedakah are not only prescribed, but they are accompanied by rules for how one should feel about giving. One should “give readily and have no regrets” (15.10). These are good notes for living ethically. It is fascinating when the Torah attempts to tell people precisely what to think and feel, as though simply in being told to feel something we can control it. Still, the idea that true giving comes with a happy heart is a nice one.

In this parshah, the laws of Kashrut (not called this in the text itself) are expanded, with detailed lists of the animals one may or may not eat. The JPS commentators suggest that these rules are not about hygiene or health, as later thinkers suggest, but rather about placing order on the natural world. One can see how Maimonides, influenced by Aristotelian categorizations and classifications, would have been drawn to sections of the Torah such as this, when distinctions are made and lists produced. Commentators have argued about the reasons for including these food laws. Some feel it is to distinguish the community from outsiders. Some feel it is connected to a concern for animals (R. Kook, following Abarbanel, thought that animals should be consumed with the highest of consciousness and that vegetarianism be held as an ideal). Most Humanistic Jews do not eat according to the Kosher laws, for the reason and justification for doing so has to do with divine commandment and an almost furious rabbinic embellishment of the law. We do, however, consider it important to take ownership over the ethics of eating. Whether we choose to be vegetarian, eat local/organic food, support fair trade food policy, etc., our food choices have a huge impact on our health, on the environment, and on the people who produce our food. We should consider how we want our ethics and our food choices to align. Parshat Re'eh is filled with the good, the bad, and the ugly. It provides idealism, destruction, chauvinism, and wisdom. It is therefore a good parshah to get a flavour of the joys and challenges of reading Torah.