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.