Preamble:In honor of my father, I delivered this essay as the d'var Torah (words of Torah, or sermon) at Temple Beth Israel in Waltham, MA on July 28, 2018. The 7th anniversary of my father's death, on the Jewish calendar, would be the coming Wednesday.
This was the first I've felt nervous before speaking in a long time. I knew there was risk in delivering these words. Thanks to a sudden inspiration just before I came up to the lectern, I set the stage by telling a story of when my son was a child and he pre-negotiated my understanding and patience ("promise you won't lose it with me") before telling me he'd bounced a super ball in his room and right through the glass of his front window...leading to some valuable lessons learned. I asked the congregation also to not lose it, because what I was about to say may be jarring but maybe we'd find things to learn together if they stuck with me.
My father, of course, always was frightened for me when I took risks; but he also was proud of me once I had. I hope this essay would have made him proud.
- Parashah = weekly Torah portion
- Torah = the Five Books of Moses
- Va-etḥannan = the name of the week's portion, which encompasses Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11
- JPS Tanach = An edition of the complete Hebrew bible published by the Jewish Publication Society
- Humash = the Torah in printed form (rather than in the sacred scroll)
- Etz Hayyim humash = a particular printing of the humash from the Rabbinical Assembly of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, with translation and commentary; the edition is titled "Etz Hayyim" or "Tree of Life"
- Adonai = a term for God that I use when the translation says "Lord," as I am uncomfortable with the gendered translation
I don’t like God very much, in this parashah.
Running a search on the JPS Tanach translation, I found God described as “impassioned” three times and “compassionate” only once. God’s mood is portrayed three times as angry, while God’s love for us mentioned just once—yet our required love for God surfaces three times.
These data underscore the emotional response I feel when reading the parashah this year—that it portrays God primarily as an angry and self-referential authoritarian.
I’ve studied, written and spoken about Va-etḥannan before, and this isn’t always what rises to the top for me. Just last year, speaking on the occasion of my father’s yahrzeit as I am today, I focused on the imperative of social justice for living in community and the urgency of teaching the next generation. I have scribbled notes in my Etz Hayyim humash, over the years, about our role in serving as a positive example; about the moment of the covenant transcending generations; about going even beyond the mitzvot to “do what is right and good” (Deut. 6:18); and of course about the inclusion of the Decalogue and the Shema.
But when I turned to Va-etḥannan this year, these are the passages that stood out:
You saw with your own eyes what Adonai did in the matter of Baal-peor, that Adonai your God wiped out from among you every person who followed Baal-peor; while you, who held fast to Adonai your God, are all alive today. (Deut. 4:3-4)
Take care, then, not to forget the covenant that Adonai your God concluded with you…. For Adonai your God is a consuming fire, an impassioned God. (Deut. 4:23-24)
For I Adonai your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and the fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments. (Deut. 5:9-10)
Do not follow other gods, any gods of the people about you—for Adonai your God in your midst is an impassioned God—lest the anger of Adonai your God blaze forth against you and God wipe you off the face of the earth. (Deut 6:14-15)Why is this how I am experiencing the text? The answer came to me last weekend while reading the novel The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton. It’s about five young women who form a tight bond while living in Palo Alto, California, in the 60s and 70s. One, Ally, is a white woman who married an Indian man and faced discrimination from many fronts. Here’s a passage:
Ally couldn’t say when, exactly, she’d fallen in love with Jim. Maybe that first moment she’d heard his lyrical voice—“excuse me, ma’am”—before she’d even looked up to see his face.
She knew her parents might be reluctant, that they’d worry about the problems she and Jim and their children would face. But she never imagined they would refuse to have Jim in their home, even to meet him. She never imagined that her father wouldn’t walk her down the aisle in the end, that she’d be married by a justice of the peace in Ann Arbor, in a dress she’d owned for years.
“I was sure my mom and dad would embrace Jim eventually,” she would tell us later. “You can’t know Jim and not love him. I never imagined they never would come to know him, that when I told them we were married they’d hide their goddamned prejudice behind the excuse that Jim wasn’t Christian.”
And while we were blinking at that—at Ally swearing and meaning it—she would say, “’For I, the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.’ Those were the last words my mother said to me, the last time she acknowledged I was alive. A quote from the goddamned Bible, from Exodus, for Christ goddamned sake.”The quote is indeed from Exodus—Chapter 20, verse 5. And Va-etḥannan echoes it.
Ally’s late 1960s fictional mother cites religious belief to justify hate and quotes biblical text to validate turning against her own daughter. In 2018, real-life figures are similarly misappropriating sacred text. I believe most of us recall that last month Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended Administration immigration policy that led to the separation of thousands of children from their parents by saying, “I would cite to you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.”
A June 15 article in Slate pointed out that the same Christian bible passage was used to defend slavery in the United States by arguing that it mandated obedience to the Fugitive Slave Act, that some European church leaders quoted it to promote submission to Hitler, and that it was cited to defend the status quo in Apartheid South Africa. Yet, Slate reports, theologians consider this a corruption of the passage that “places God as the appointer of authorities, but not the appointer of specific laws,” with the understanding that no one should respect or comply with the orders of those authorities if those orders are evil or unjust.
On March 19, Marco Rubio tweeted:
I will place boys as their princes; the fickle will govern them & the people will oppress one another, yes, each one the neighbor. The child will be insolent toward the elder & the base toward the honorable. Isaiah 3:4-5His intent was to scold the youth who emerged as leaders in advocating for gun control because they didn’t trust elected officials to take action. Yet the full passage actually describes a world of chaos in which “People will oppress each other—man against man, neighbor against neighbor” and the children rise up because the elders are unable to lead, incapable of acting in their honored roles.
It’s a form of bullying—this misuse of holy text to justify controversial policy or condemnation of another's views. People in positions of power are yielding a literary tool of authority (however ineptly) to bludgeon their adversaries and hold sway over their followers.
Is it surprising that politicians usurp the bible to play the bully, when the God that emerges in Va-etḥannan could readily serve as a model for bullying? They might learn from the example of God’s actions against Baal-peor to frighten us into submission. Or from the image of a fire consuming those who fail to honor a covenant. Or from forcing a choice between future generations suffering guilt or experiencing kindness, that loyalty might be coerced rather than earned. Or from the potential to be wiped off the earth should that loyalty ever wander.
This reminds me that we have heard a lot about demands for loyalty in the current administration—loyalty to a single authority figure rather than to principle or to the responsibilities of a position. Turning back to The Wednesday Sisters, our current situation has parallels to the era in which the novel is set. The narrator explores her ambivalence about the anti-war protests, saying:
I believed—most American’s believed—that the spread of communism would be loss of freedom and torture and death, and perhaps even nuclear war. We never imagined the communist world would just collapse as it did in the Soviet Union years later. We thought the only way to preserve our lifestyle was to fight theirs. And we couldn’t, truthfully, imagine that America might be wrong. We didn’t like to imagine that what we were doing as a country could be imperialist or illegal or just plain immoral any more than we liked to imagine an America that could be defeated by a small country of small people we thought of as less intelligent and less compassionate and less worthy than we were. So we just didn’t imagine it.How current this sounds—the incapacity to stand up against immoral government action, the acceptance when those different from us are portrayed as less important, intelligent, decent or worthy, because it’s all so beyond what we can let ourselves imagine. This mindset—in which we so want to believe good of our country and by extension its elected officials—has left us particularly vulnerable to those who will bully us into, if not full fealty, at least inaction.
And this doesn’t apply only to political leaders. We have seen many other examples in which holding positions of authority can open the door to bullying, predatory and harassing behavior. We want to believe the best of our companies, our bosses, our teachers…and we want them to think the best of us. The #MeToo movement has woken us up to the danger of this power dynamic and emboldened many women to speak up about our experiences. But this progress toward awareness in one dimension seems to brush aside the broader issue, as I repeatedly see people calling for gender diversity in work groups and conference panels without even taking notice that everyone in the room is white.
Does the example of the jealous, impassioned, easily angered, punishing aspect of God—the one who demands loyalty yet can confer great kindness and rewards—model, reinforce and serve to justify the bullying behaviors of political and other authorities? Or does monotheism guard against this because only God’s self holds the true role of authority, as exemplified in the parashah by Moses ascribing all that he describes to God—with his impending death resulting from the moment when he acted outside God’s authority? Or does our belief that we are created in God’s image communicate to some that they can seize authority through authoritarianism?
It really doesn’t matter whether I like God in this parashah. After all, God is…God. Most religious constructs establish that there are beings—or as in our case a singular being—whose actions and decisions we may not understand but we accept as having purpose and reason.
But the rest of us are not God. Much of what Moses rails against here—what earns the threat of God's wrath in his oratory—is the setting up of false Gods. Let's not imagine that the sin of idolatry is limited to the graven image. At every instance we must call out, speak against and bring down those who set themselves up as false...and bullying...gods.
Which brings us to the most important question I ask today: what is our responsibility, as students, interpreters and custodians of these sacred texts, to eradicate the oppression perpetrated by the bullies?
Postscript:I ended my d'var Torah with a question. But here, I'd like to offer some possible answers.
- I reject the notion I hear in many circles that rabbis should not preach political position from the pulpit. That is so forceful in the Christian right and we just forfeit it for the most part. Anyone--particularly a community leader--who believes our political environment poses a critical threat to our humanity should use the tools she or he has to address that threat.
- When we cannot trust the Federal government to function within the conceit of a Democracy or for the best interests of the people, we must organize and act on a local and regional level and develop a deliberate structure of linkages among those local and regional efforts (which I believe large, systemic, humane nonprofits can help facilitate), so we end up with a national network strong enough to serve the nation and facile enough to serve localities in a manner that meets human needs and fights the injustices from the Administration. I believe even synagogues can have a role in that, our linkages with other local organizations can be a start of this network, and the larger Jewish governance bodies and foundations can further it.