Monday, July 31, 2006


Weekly Parsha Blogging

Deuteronomy 1:1-3:23.
Isaiah 1:1-27

By this point in the annual cycle of readings, the reading from the Prophets matches the theme of the week rather than the reading of the Torah. Yet nonetheless, there is still often a connection between the Torah and Haftorah readings. In the Torah we read from the beginning of the Book of Deuteronomy and from the Prophets we read the beginning of the Book of Isaiah. These books are linked by their singular importance in defining Jewish tradition as we know it today. With its call toward centralized religious worship of a universal God demanding Justice more than anything, Deuteronomy, which contains the verses used to justify the Rabbinic stream of Judaism as well many rules for prayer as well as passages used in prayer (e.g. the Sh'ma), is really the foundation of Jewish religion and practice as it exists today. Isaiah goes even further than Deuteronomy: where God demands Justice in Deuteronomy, Isaiah presents God as sickeningly overfilled of sacrifices and demanding that the ritual observance stop until such time as Justice is done. According to Isaiah, it is Justice that will save Israel, not ritual and not military might.

Isaiah and Deuteronomy are connected in other ways as well. Deuteronomy is believed to be the work of the Deuteronomic School, which is also linked to Jeremiah, whose prophecies we also read during the Three Weeks before Tisha B'av and whose Lamentations, which stylistically echo the earlier Isaiah (some of which echoing parts we read with this portion) we read on Tisha B'av. The Deuteronomists were active in a period when it was clear that the Kingdom of Judah would fall and sought to transform the tribal religion of the Judeans, e.g. that of the "J's" gloss on Judean myths which contributed (along with the similar 'E' gloss of the Northern tribes) to the Torah along with the ritual codes of an upwardly mobile Priestly Caste (originally likely a "separated" outcaste that redefined "separate" into holy, elevating themselves and the people of Israel in the process), into a universalistic religion: first by emphasizing the central religious expressions and common history and mythos of the Judeans and then drawing that religious identity into a more universal covenant of Law that could serve as a model for religious as well as secular communities everywhere. It is no accident that the Rabbinic Judaism that has allowed Judaism to survive the fall of the Temple(s), which fall we commemorate on Tisha B'av (thus linking Deuteronomy to the calendar) draws its very justification from Deuteronomy, which Book was written to guide Judaism through a transition from being the religion of the Land of Israel to being a religion of a People of the Book.

Isaiah earlier thought similarly about in which direction Judaism should go. Isaiah is the first individually named Prophetic book in the Hebrew Bible (i.e. not counting those associated with the Chieftains Joshua and Samuel) and starts a trend of certain policy (alliance with Egypt being questionable) and religious concerns common to the Prophets through those of the Deuteronomic school. In particular, in the first chapter of Isaiah, the Prophet denounces ritual and indicates that more important than prayer and ritual are justice and good deeds. Those who claim that disasters befall the U.S. or Israel due to a lack of ritual purity or strict religious observance would do well to note the words of Isaiah: it isn't the lack of observance of religion or secularization of society that induces God's wrath but rather the continual observance of religious festivals and invocation of and sacrifice to God when such religiosity is not matched by justice. Interestingly, in both Deuteronomy and Isaiah, the very due process of Law has saving power: Israel is to be punished if it does not judge the case of the orphan or the widow, but is to be saved by justice.

In today's troubles, we need to remember the triumph of Deuteronomy: while we Jews should love our Holy Land, we must remember that Judaism transcends even that love. Moreover, those who tell us that the only way to save Israel is through "sending our enemies a message of strength" or through meticulous observance of religious rituals and laws are missing the point of not only Deuteronomy which has given us much of those laws but also of Isaiah's rebuke to Judah: that it is through Justice and Justice alone that Israel is to be saved. Indeed, if we do not hear the widow's cause, even the cause of the widows of our supposed enemies, even if God wreaks vengeance on Her enemies, God's hand, according to Isaiah, will be turned against _us_. Thus, we must be very careful that we not seek vengeance as such vengeance will consume us as a smelting pot melts silver: the restoration of our magistrates as in the days of old may be what some claim to want with their fulminating Messianic Zionism, but, as Isaiah warns us, that is a fearful prospect as that restoration will involve God turning against all of us and only saving us if we can remain dedicated to justice no matter what befalls us.

Alas, we seem to be failing the test. If we cannot maintain a system of justice when we are challenged, what system of justice did we have to begin with? If an attack by those whose express aim is to terrorize us leaves us so terrorized we confuse vengeance with justice and pollute the land further with blood, were we really dedicated to the rule of law to begin with? Isaiah and Deuteronomy both teach us that the one thing God demands is justice. And yet even those who claim that our society's ills relate to our estrangement from God eagerly embrace doctrines of retribution and violence and ignore the widows and orphans such violence, both military and economic, begets. When our defenders of the faith ignore the demands of justice, they become lightening rods for rather than appeasers of God's wrath, as Isaiah would warn us.

Interestingly, Isaiah is perceptive enough to wonder about the martyrdom complex of those who "seek further beatings". Those who give justice the short shrift and emphasize empty observances over good deeds do seem wont to play the martyr, don't they? As do those who seek war rather than peace -- it is always they who want vengeance that nurture a sense of grievance. Isaiah asks us to seek justice lest we be destroyed by our inequities. But Isaiah is also an acute student of human nature and knows that, not only does salvation come from justice, but a chief impediment to justice is the desire of some to play the victim, whether its fundamentalists complaining about how secularists are oppressing them, terrorists hiding in civilian populations complaining about attacks on their civilian brethren or people who seek disproportionate retribution whenever they are attacked as a matter of principle and then wondering why the world considers them to be bullies. In order to be saved, we must open our eyes and stop playing at being victims in order to help out the real victims. And only then will we be saved -- at the very least, those who nurture a sense of victimization ensure that their brethren will become victims of the hatred those with martyrdom complexes seek to be directed at themselves. Isaiah does warn us, when you say "bring it on", God will bring it on -- and, if we are so convinced of our righteousness that we fail to be properly repentant, it is we who will be smitten.

So -- don't say Isaiah didn't warn you when you get what you ask for! And of course, Deuteronomy warns us, as we read everyday in the Sh'ma, as well ...

That's a great story. Waiting for more. »
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