Tag Archives: exile

The Many Returns of the Jews

This week’s parsha, Nitzavim, is the beginning of the end of the Torah. As such, the focus is on warning the Israelites once again that unless they remain vigilant about their worship of God, and only God, they will be viciously torn from the land that (in the narrative of the Torah) they are just now being given. Let’s keep in mind that this text was probably composed right after the Northern Israelite Kingdom was sacked by the Assyrians, and in the midst of the Babylonian Empire’s rampage throughout the region, which was swiftly approaching Jerusalem’s gates. In short, the composers of Deuteronomy saw the exile coming, and were trying to figure out how to avoid it.

As history shows us, they failed. In this week’s Torah portion, though, they also seem to have known that they were going to. A few lines are devoted to a prophetic description of the post-exilic period, and God’s reaction to the people post-exile. The portion says that the exiles, who are being punished for their lack of loyalty to God, will one day see the error of their ways and return their focus of worship to God. Once they do this they are guaranteed to be returned to their land, and God will “circumcise their hearts.”Again we see the need for Israel to be made more sensitive to their God. We also must keep in mind that the heart was considered the center of thought, not emotion as we tend to think of it today, in the Israelite world. A heart circumcised by God would be one with its outer barrier removed. What can this mean other than the removal of the Israelites’  famed stiff necked-ness? Which, in my opinion, can only mean widespread direct communication with God. Now that we have been through not one, but two exiles and returns what does this mean for the Book of Deuteronomy and the nature of the Jewish people’s relationship with God and the land of Israel?

The idea of this text being an infallible word of God is clearly undermined by the historical realities that have occurred since its composition. In fact, what this very book prescribes to do with a prophet who makes a prediction that fails to come true would have us ignore Moses. So how should we treat this text?

In my estimation, the real impetus behind this prophecy is not to predict actual events and futures. Taking it to be a literal attempt at foreseeing an almost eschatological event which included a widespread communication with God is to assume that the people composing this text had more or less no connection to reality, when the rest of the text deals with some very real material. Instead, it might be worth giving them a little more credit by assuming that the writers were attempting to affect their readership in a particular way. Instilling hope in the readers (or listeners) of this text, may have actually been the direct cause of the steadfastness of the Jewish people in exile. A lingering and continual hope for return to the land of their forefathers was an undeniably central tenet of Judaism both in the first and second diaspora. There is no way that the Deuteronomic authors could have known that Cyrus the emperor of Persia would both conquer the Babylonian Empire and reestablish the Jewish people in Jerusalem. Even if one would like to ascribe greater knowledge of the future to the writers of Deuteronomy, though, one would have to accept that they made no mention of a second, even more horrific exile, along with a second, even stranger return to the land. And one would have to concede that it is pretty apparent that we Jews have still yet to have our hearts circumcised by God. So can we even apply this to ourselves today? Or should we just chalk this portion of Deuteronomy up to an ancient piece of well-meaning propaganda?

As we head into Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, I think we should allow for the possibility of this text to be deeply meaningful and impactful today. Teshuvah, the Hebrew word for return, is referenced consistently throughout both this passage and Rosh Hashanah. It is often used throughout the Jewish world as “repentance” as well. The mixture of these two things, the idea of repenting and the idea of returning, are deeply interwoven in this parsha. This makes me wonder if we should even take the literal land of Israel as the desired goal of teshuvah in this passage. As it is relatively clear that living in the land of Israel didn’t actually create a more righteous, prosperous, or happy nation (just look at what happens narratively throughout the Tanach!), it appears that the real goal of the teshuvah would be the circumcision of the Israelites’ hearts.

This eschatological possibility is one that we should take to heart today. Instead of waiting for God to do this for us, though, we must do it ourselves. We must look back into the mists of time, relying upon the scraps passed forward to us from our ancestors to describe their highest goals and aspirations, but we mustn’t also take their hopes and aspirations forward as merely hopes and aspirations for our future. That would defeat the purpose of the transmission. We must, instead, attempt to enact these hopes and dreams for ourselves and our people by our own hands and hearts. The Zionists proved that it was possible to will one of our greatest dreams into reality in 1948, but I don’t know that we are any closer to the dream of our hearts being circumcised into sensitive instruments of morality and justice. Let us use this time of year, the Jewish New Year, to repent and return to the hopes and dreams of our ancestors. Before we deserve to live in a world where God will speak to our sensitized hearts and minds, we must first act the part. Shanah Tovah!

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The Pattern of History

In this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11,26-16,17), we are presented with some of the legal reforms that Deuteronomy is famous for. They aren’t described as such, as they are couched in the narrative of the Torah as having been given to the Israelites by Moses at the moment before he died. Scholars now believe that these shifts in the law were put in place by King Josiah. As interesting as ancient legal reform might be, let’s move on to the actual implications of the shift in the law. If looked at holistically, based on its place in the historical timeline and the Torah, the reforms laid out here give us an excellent point of perspective on a broad historical theme.

The goal of the reforms found here were centralization of religious practice around the Temple in Jerusalem, and the destruction of local places of worship scattered throughout the land of Israel. The Temple isn’t mentioned by name, but the reason is pretty clear: If the writers of Deuteronomy were attempting to project this document back in time, the Temple wasn’t to be built for hundreds of years. So the document instead states that local worship is no longer allowed, and that individuals are required to go to “the place where God chooses to place His name” for religious practices. There are two very important pieces of ancient Israelite culture that are revealed by this shift. Prior to the reforms, there must have once been a varied, local practice led by Levites, and meat was only eaten in the context of these practices. This portion does two things with these facets of Israelite life. It allows all Israelites to slaughter animals for eating outside of the religious realm, and it displaces the Levites from local religious leadership, instead grouping them in the category including the poor, the widowed, and the orphans. Quite a fall for the local priests.

What were the Levites doing that was such a challenge to the central leadership that it had to be legislated out of existence? The religious ceremonies led by the Levites are thought to have been based around what we now have as the book of Psalms. Over time this book was changed and eventually compiled from the many psalmic traditions of ancient Israel. This may be why we have different psalms attributed to different authors – they were used in different places and for different purposes.

These ceremonies led throughout the land of Israel by the local Levites might ring some bells with you: They lit incense, played music, sang Psalms, and, prior to the Deuteronomic Reform laid out in this Torah portion, were probably in charge of sacrificing animals for religious, communal feasts. When the Deuteronomic Reform hit, though, the religious authority of these rituals was removed. Secularity was to reign supreme everywhere outside of the Temple. Deuteronomy called for the total destruction of the places that Levites would have led these ceremonies, with the understanding that they were old Canaanite places of worship. They very well may have been. We know that today, when larger, hegemonic religions have spread throughout the world, they tend to adopt local sacred sites as the new sites for their religion. Why would it have been any different then? These local, dispersed practices were brought down with their sites, and all religious or cultic practice was relocated only to the Temple.

The picture I’m trying to paint here is the difference between pre-Deuteronomy and post-Deuteronomy Israelite religion. What was accomplished by these legislations was nothing less than civilization shaking. The entire focus of the Israelite nation became the Temple. A religious centralization, mixed with a demystification and destruction of local holy places, must have entirely changed the way that the Israelites related to their land. This also came in the wake of the displacement of the northern kingdom by the Neo-Assyrians, which basically left Jerusalem as the last surviving center of the Israelite world.

Is there anything that we can learn from these reforms then? Not long after the decree of King Josiah, the Babylonians came knocking at Jerusalem’s door. Having placed all religious importance upon the Temple, there was a great movement within the Israelites that led them to believe that Jerusalem and the Temple were invincible. A large subtext to the writings of Isaiah and Jeremiah is a disagreement about this belief. Turned out the believers were wrong, and pretty much all of the holders of the ancient Israelite tradition were exiled to Babylon.

It would be easy to see this this as a warning against the dangers of extreme centralization, had the exiles from Jerusalem not somehow held on to the religion. This experience of exile, regarded universally in the Tanach as horribly traumatic, was the birthing place of the core that has allowed our religion to exist outside of centralized, national bounds for millenia. Most scholars believe that the portable tradition of the Torah was created as a reaction to the trauma, and this innovation is what has let us exist as a landless nation proudly carrying on the history of our people.

There is another great example of a very similar understanding of the nature of centralized power in the Jewish tradition: the Lurianic Kabbalah creation myth. The basic idea of the Lurianic creation of the cosmos is that God concentrated all of its divine energy into the creation of a series of layers of reality that descend in divine power from top to bottom. As God’s energy seeped through into the lower layers, these layers were no longer strong enough to contain this divine ray, and shattered. This misjudgment in the ability for our reality to contain the full power of divinity in a concentrated form led to our current state in the world today, where we must work to repair our reality through our own self-chosen actions. This sums up the theme of our weekly portion very well. Concentrating all of the most valued aspects of society in one spot is not that different from God attempting to concentrate the most distilled version of its power into a vessel that simply could not hold it. It leads to breakdown and dispersion.

The theme of concentration and then dispersion echoes throughout both Kabbalistic thought and Jewish history. The narrative of the Israelites in the Tanach has a pendulum like swing from central authority to dispersed local practices. By tracing this theme through history, we can gain some perspective on the state of our world today. As we watch some of the most powerful political and economic entities in human history struggle with containing and controlling concentrated authority, let us not fear the outcome too much. As a controversial Jew once said, a diamond is a chunk of coal that is made good under pressure. Only through this process of concentration and dispersion can we continue to develop and evolve as a species. Let us hope that the pressure we see and feel all around us today is readying itself for a great dispersal of new forms of more resilient and refined culture.

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