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Torah Sparks

August 18, 2012 – 30 Av 5772

Annual: Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 1061; Hertz p. 799)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 12:29 – 14:29 (Etz Hayim, p. 1068; Hertz p. 804)
Maftir: Numbers 28:9-15 (Etz Hayim p. 930; Hertz p. 695)
Haftarah: Isaiah: 66:1-24 (Etz Hayim, p. 1220; Hertz p. 944)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser
Temple Emanuel of North Jersey - Franklin Lakes, NJ

Parashat Re’eh presents Israel with stark choices: be blessed for obeying God’s commandments or be cursed by God for disobedience. Upon entering the Land, Israel is to dramatize the fundamental choice confronting it by ceremoniously articulating God’s blessing on Mount Gerizim and His curse on Mount Ebal. Accordingly, Israel is commanded to destroy the idols and pagan sanctuaries it finds in Canaan. Israelite sacrifices are to be offered at a single sacral location, which God will designate; this cultic center will be the only place where sacrificial food may be eaten. The Israelites are permitted non-sacred slaughter and to eat that meat wherever they live, provided they do not consume the blood. They are admonished not to forget to provide for the Levite, who has no territorial allotment.

Israel is commanded not to adopt the cultic practices of Canaan, nor even to inquire about its forms of worship, which include, notably, child sacrifice to Molech. The Israelites are specifically warned not to be lured into foreign worship by prophets or diviners, notwithstanding convincing signs and portents, and even should the “enticer” be a trusted loved one or dear friend. Any such enticer – familial or prophetic – is to be stoned. Should it be discovered after thorough investigation that an entire Israelite town has been seduced into idolatry, its inhabitants are to be put to the sword and the town itself, together with all it contains, must be destroyed, “never to be rebuilt.”

Self-mutilation by gashing as an expression of mourning is prohibited. Prohibited and permitted species of animals (land animals, birds, sea-life) are listed as a further expression of Israelite holiness. This section concludes with a third iteration of the prohibition not to “boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” Significantly, here this verse is placed in the context of dietary laws for the first time; until now it had been discussed as the pagan (and therefore forbidden) practice to which Israel’s festival offering of first fruits was the authorized alternative.

Laws of tithing are followed by a further undertaking in the interests of financial and social justice: the prescribed remission of debts in the seventh year – the sabbatical year. In the same spirit, the religious imperative to provide for the poor is laid out. Israelites who are concerned about the possibility that borrowers might default are warned not to withhold funds from the needy as the remission of debts in the seventh year approaches; such behavior is deemed “base” in character. Israelites who enter into indentured servitude, perhaps out of financial desperation, may be kept as servants for six years. In the seventh year they must be released.

At the end of their indentures such servants must be furnished with appropriate material goods. The nation that remembers enslavement in Egypt is compelled to treat its own servants compassionately. Slaves grateful for such kindly treatment may opt out of the scheduled manumission, choosing permanent indenture instead. All firstborn livestock, it is commanded, are sanctified by God and must be consumed only at His chosen shrine. The parashah concludes with a review of the pilgrimage festivals (on which these passages are read liturgically): Passover, the counting of seven weeks to Shavuot, Shavuot itself, and Succot.

Theme #1: “You’ll Never Walk Alone”

“You shall not act at all as we now act here, each man, whatever is right in his own eyes.” (Deuteronomy 12:8)

Study: Derash

“Whatever is right in his own eyes: A theme in Deuteronomic literature, usually denoting chaos.” (Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses)

“The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but the wise man hearkens unto counsel.” (Proverbs 12:15)

“It is only to the individual that a soul is given.” (Albert Einstein)

“Moral relativism maintains that there is no objective standard of right and wrong independent of humanity. The creation of moral principles stems only from within a person, not as a distinct, detached reality. Each person is the source and definer of his or her own ethical code, and each has equal power and authority to define morality the way he or she sees fit. The consequences of moral relativism are far-reaching. Right and wrong are reduced to matters of personal taste and opinion. Without a binding, objective standard of morality that is in force whether one likes it or not, a person can do whatever he feels by choosing to label any behavior he personally enjoys as ‘good.’" (Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith)

“We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.” (Pope Benedict XVI)

Questions for Discussion

The phrase “Whatever is right in his own eyes” carries a negative, morally flawed connotation in much of Biblical literature (see Proverbs, e.g.). Is this moral critique inherent in our verse? Or are we dealing merely with a transition to a centralized cult? Were not the individual offerings of Israelites during the wilderness period sincere, appropriate, and consistent with divine instruction? Why suddenly a problem?!

How are we to balance the free and spontaneous religious expression of our individual souls with legitimate concerns for liturgical and spiritual chaos (see Fox) and moral relativism (see Rabbi Coopersmith and Pope Benedict)? How might Einstein respond to this discussion?

How does “whatever is right in his own eyes” differ from (or coincide with) the broad religious latitude given the Conservative rabbi as mara d’atra (local religious authority for a particular community or organization) – a principle sacrosanct in the Conservative Movement? How does our verse relate to the religious self-determination that is the reality of contemporary Jewish life?

What exactly is a “dictatorship of relativism”? How is our freedom enhanced through submission to law and authority? Where do we see this principle reflected in Jewish thought and tradition?

Theme #2: “Inquiring Minds Want to Know”

“…Do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did those nations worship their gods? I, too, will follow those practices.’ You shall not act thus toward the Lord your God…” (Deuteronomy 12:30-31)

Study: Derash

“We must insist upon loyalty to the unique and holy treasures of our own tradition and at the same time acknowledge that this aeon of religious diversity may be the providence of God… The ecumenical spirit was born of the insight that God is greater than religion, that faith is deeper than dogma… and that religion involves the total situation of man, his attitudes and deeds, and must therefore never be kept in isolation.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)

“The Torah would sharpen the distinction between intellectual study of other faiths and the temptation to incorporate elements of those faiths into our own practice. Every religion has its own ‘grammar,’ its coherent way of expressing its values. We do violence to that coherence when we mix practices of one faith system with those of another.” (Chumash Etz Hayim)

“Such inquiry, it was feared, might lead to imitative idolatrous practices. If Israel was to be purged from paganism, it was best to prohibit the very knowledge of such dangerous ways… The purpose of this view was clear… to establish God as the Supreme Ruler of Israel… To be sure, unlimited inquiry carries certain risks, but these are worth the price, for the freedom of knowledge is, for liberals, a requisite for a fully free human existence.” (Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah, A Modern Commentary)

“True dialogue must find the Jew truly listening to those aspects of the Christian tradition which are not transposable into our own. We must disabuse ourselves of an intellectual condescension towards the Christian believer. We must be ready to re-examine some of the traditional categories of comparison which have functioned more as sterile stereotypes than as invitations to deeper understanding.” (Rabbi Samuel E. Karff)

Questions for Discussion

Was God’s command to avoid knowledge or investigation of other religious systems a time-bound concern limited to the generation that entered the Promised Land? What are the “certain risks” (mentioned by Rabbi Plaut) to Jews who make such inquiries today? What are the benefits to such a process which make it “worth the price”?

Heschel seems to make an even stronger case for appreciating religious diversity…asserting the possibility that diversity is a product of God’s will and “providence.” What theological and programmatic implications does such a “revelation” have for our congregations and institutions? What place does discussion of other faiths have in our congregational and day schools? In our youth movements? In adult Jewish education?

When is it legitimate to incorporate liturgical elements of other faiths… or the insights of non-Jewish religious thinkers… into Jewish worship and preaching? Does citation of Pope Benedict XVI in Theme #1, above, violate the verse explored in Theme #2 of this Torah Sparks?!

Can literacy (even fluency) regarding other religious traditions, beliefs, and practices be considered a worthwhile Jewish pursuit?

Historic Note

Parashat Re’eh, read on August 18, 2012, repeats the provision of Leviticus regarding those sea creatures which may be eaten: “These you may eat of all that live in water: you may eat anything that has fins and scales…” On August 18, 1817, newspapers in Gloucester, Massachusetts – a community iconic in the fishing industry – reported a wild sea serpent spotted off-shore. Decried as a hoax by some, a serious study of the creature was published in the prestigious American Journal of Science and Arts. The serpent, given the official Linnaean designation Scoliophis Atlanticus, was variously described as sixty to seventy feet in length, full of joints, with the girth of a barrel, and with a horned head resembling that of a turtle… but of a size surpassing that of a large dog. Neither fins nor scales were specifically mentioned!

Halachah L’Maaseh

The seventh and eighth days of Passover are observed as Yom Tov (see Deuteronomy 16:8), with all the usual restrictions and celebratory elements associated with the other festivals. Unlike all other festivals, however, shehechiyanu is omitted at both candlelighting and kiddush for the final days of Pesach. Similarly distinguishing these days from other festivals (including Chanukah!), the abbreviated Hallel is recited during morning services. This practice has been interpreted as an expression of sympathy for the suffering of the Egyptians and the celebratory songs misguidedly offered God by the angels as the Egyptian army perished in the Sea of Reeds (See BT Megillah 10B, Arakhin 10A-B; Rabbi Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice).

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