Va-Ethannan - on the decalogue, on destroying idols, and on deciding for ourselves

This parshah begins with Moses telling the people how he begged God to let him into the land, but it will be Joshua to lead the people in. This is an interesting narrative moment because the people (his addressees), like the later hearer/reader of these words, feels a genuine pathos for Moses. This is one of many reminders that Moses is human, not divine. This is important because he is not just a figurehead but rather a role model. he overcomes adversity (e.g. becoming a speaker in spite of his speech impediment), faces adversaries, deals with family squabbles, and lives a life of frustration and disappointment, as well as joy and triumph. This introduction to the weekly parshah is a good reminder of the fullness of humanity. What follows is very directed by and at God and worship, but behind all of the commandments and theistic pronouncements is the understanding that all of this is in the service of humanity. We are to follow the law not just for love of a God, but love of our neighbour. This is the backdrop to, and spirit of, the Decalogue that we visit again in this parshah.

Why are the ten commandments recited twice in the Torah, once in Exodus and once in Deuteronomy? The most widely accepted answer amongst scholars is that the writings reflect two different early Jewish communities. As noted above, it is likely that Deuteronomy was not intended by its writers to exist alongside other biblical books. Many scholars compare and contrast the versions, and there are differences, but the substance of the ten commandments remains the same. As Moses tells the commandments he addresses the people directly, and notes that they saw and heard elements of divinity and majesty at the mountain. These sensory details anchor the narrative – again, Deuteronomy is quite aware of its own narrativity – and not only must the people remember this experience, but they are told to pass it on to their children. We see here the formation of narrative memory, we are told that we are witnesses and then told to tell our story as witnesses. The rituals of the Passover seder mean this telling and remembering occur annually, and have, indeed, served as the backbone to peoplehood for centuries. Much is made of the first two commandments that “I am the Lord your God … you shall have no other Gods beside me” and “You shall not make for yourself a graven image” The first commandment can be read two ways: it either suggests that there is only one God or, more plausibly, that there are many Gods but Yahweh is the one that the Israelites/Jews must worship. The prohibition against idolatry is a move towards destroying the images of not just Yahweh, but the Gods with whom he competes. The world in which the Torah was written (accounting for the long span of time over which it was written), was not a monotheistic world. Much of the discussion of the “oneness” of God (see below as well regarding the Shema) speaks to a monolatrous, not monotheistic world. The JPS editors note that there is sometimes an anachronistic reading of the bible; that Second Temple communities read monotheism into earlier texts that had a divine council (a group of Gods who ruled, and competed sometimes for position) in mind. The editors note as well that sometimes modern Jews are unaware of the tension between monotheism and monolatry because synagogue prayer books also obfuscate the issue through translation/explanatory notes that upholds monotheism. It is too bad that the theological debates that present in the text of the bible are ignored by so many. Those who read the bible historically should be fascinated to learn of how our ancestors altered their view of God(s) and how our people developed. This is part of the richness of our textual tradition. The JPS editors also suggest that “the Decalogue inextricably ties love of God with love of neighbor” as most of the commandments have to do with how we treat each other. While the way we read the bible theologically might vary across the movements, it is almost universally recognized that there can be no love for divinity without love for humanity.

The commandments such as honouring one’s parents, prohibitions against adultery (although, note, adultery meant only men sleeping with married women. A married man could have affairs with others and it was not in violation of the law) are useful in trying to create an orderly and perhaps even a just society. There are also commandments that appeal to the best part of ourselves. We are commanded not to covet what our neighbour has. While theft can be prohibited, jealousy cannot. Still, the text wants us to recognize this as a fault. A better way to put it might be: “try to be happy with what you have.” The commandment to keep the Sabbath not only has been extremely important in building and maintaining Judaism as a coherent group, but has leant meaning to Jewish lives. While I do not “keep” the Sabbath halachically, I do try to celebrate Shabbat dinner with friends and family, I love getting together with my Humanistic congregation to sing, eat, and celebrate as well, and I think separating a time in the week for rest is hugely valuable in our busy lives. Humanistic Jews can take much from the Decalogue, and can also note with interest that our ancestors created one of the earliest law codes.

Following the recitation of the Decalogue we have the words that have become one of the most recognized pieces of Jewish liturgy: the Shema. If the Decalogue can have meaning for Humanistic Jews, can the Shema? The words we get in the text are. ear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone (6.4). This is the JPS translation. Readers might be more familiar with “the Lord is one” as the translation, but the word “echad” leaves on the possibility of both “alone,” “one,” and also “united.” Again, in the translation we can see the tension between monotheism and monolatry. For Humanistic Jews, the translation will likely not make a difference for us. We do not recite the Shema because it cannot be divorced from its theism. But because so many Jews associate the Shema with their forebears, their upbringing, or their sense of Jewish collectivity, we have versions that we do say and find meaningful. One of many versions in our movement is:

Shma Yisrael ava Neetol Chelek beTikkun Olam

Hear O Israel, Let us take part in repairing the world

This version makes our task of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) central. Others make our commitment to community central (although, it is hard to claim that Jews/our community/humanity is "one" –given how much we disagree/diverge). The point is that Humanistic Judaism must always struggle with the tension between using text and retaining the integrity of saying what we believe. The shema has been, for us, an evolving conversation about how we approach these issues.

As the people are about to enter the promised land, they are told to construct and remain a separate community amidst others. For this reason, intermarriage is strictly forbidden (7.3-4), particularly because there is an anxiety that the non-Jewish women might turn children away from belief in Yahweh. This too appears familiar in contemporary contexts. There is so much anxiety about whether children from intermarried homes can/should/will be Jewish. Humanistic Jews dispense with these anxieties. We trust the Jews who come to our communities to decide what is right for them. Some of our families who have intermarried see themselves as “just Jewish,” some celebrate other cultural/religious traditions as well, some are ambivalent and some passionate about the issue, etc. The truth is that the range we experience in our communities is the same as in all liberal communities. The difference is that all of these couples and families, regardless of the choices they make and the ways they identify, are fully welcomed in our communities. Just as it is a mistake for Jews to read monotheism onto a text that existed before a monotheistic world, so too would it be a mistake to disparage the text when it is inconsistent with our contemporary values. The ban on intermarriage makes sense for a people who are figuring out how to live amongst others and yet retain a distinct peoplehood (although, it strikes me as ironic that the ban on intermarriage is meant to be spoken by Moses, who himself intermarried).

There are other moves towards creating a distinct group in the text. Here we have the mention of Jewish chosenness, an issue that also becomes controversial for modern Jews. Moses says that God values the Jews and fights for them not because they are the biggest of communities (in terms of number), but because they are the “smallest of peoples.” It is understandable that, because the Jews have always had small numbers, the writers of the text wanted to give the people reasons to remain in the community. The idea of chosenness by God, fostering a special sense of pride, is one of these reasons. Humanistic Jews, and other liberal Jewish groups, reject the idea that the Jews are better than others. But we do take pride in the ways that we are unique and special. All peoples have roots and traditions, and we are proud of our own.

The final idea to be addressed in this parshah is that of free will. Our stance on intermarriage is just one example of how we believe in and encourage “free will” for Humanistic Jews. Judaism as a whole believes in free will, but defines it differently. In this parshah we have the Jewish proof-text for free will, as Moses tells the people that God hopes they will do his will (i.e. he does not know for sure) (5.25). In the numerous debates on the existence of God, the point is often made that God cannot be fully omnipotent and also allow for free will. Here we also see that free will limits his omniscience – if the people can decide whether to follow him, and he does not know whether they will, then he has neither total power nor total vision. But this is not what I mean by “free will” for members of the Humanistic Jewish community. I am speaking more of a freedom of will that transcends theology. We believe that people should be free in as many ways as possible, so long as they are not injurious. We want people to be free to explore Judaism’s history, texts, and cultural traditions (and we do not censor these out of fear for what they’ll find). We want people to be free to identify with their Jewish identity and peoplehood in the way(s) that make sense to them. We want people to find what is meaningful, and pursue happiness on their own terms, regardless of how it may conflict with tradition or Halachah (Jewish law). We value not only the aspect of “freedom” in the concept of “free will,” but also of “will” itself. If we are the ones who are both the cause of the world’s problems and also the only ones who can change/improve the world, then our will matters immensely. We need to take seriously the impact of our choices, and know that our will has a profound impact on ourselves, others, and our world. If humanity willed that violence would end, that the environment be protected, that all children be educated, that hunger be abated, we could make those things happen. This is the Humanistic interpretation of free will.