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The Torah and the Jewish Tradition

  • The Torah and the Jewish Tradition

    D'varim, Deuteronomy 1:1−3:22
D'var Torah By: 

The Book of Deuteronomy is built around three speeches delivered by Moses. The first of these, which occurs within this week's Torah portion, D'varim, includes a review of the events that took place during Moses' lifetime. It begins: "These are the words (had'varim) that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan." (Deuteronomy 1:1)

The twelfth-century Spanish scholar Abraham Ibn Ezra, whose authority as an interpreter of the Bible is second only to that of Rashi, pointed out that whoever wrote the phrase "on the other side of the Jordan" (b'eiver haYarden) must have stood on the Israelite side of the river. Since Moses never crossed the Jordan, Ibn Ezra reasoned that he could not have written this line.

Ibn Ezra was very cautious in how he expressed this insight. He simply identified this as one of several passages that have a "secret." (Another is the description of Og's bed in Deuteronomy 3:11, which is also in this week's portion.) But Ibn Ezra's observation inspired the seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who was much more blunt in citing these passages as evidence that Moses could not have written the Torah (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, chapter 8). Spinoza's work played a key role in the development of modern biblical scholarship.

Today such thoughts are much less threatening than they were in the time of Ibn Ezra, or even that of Spinoza. Ibn Ezra was plainly afraid to state the obvious point of his observation. As he put it, "It [the passage] has a secret, and the wise will be silent." (Ibn Ezra's commentary on Genesis 12:6 in Mikraot G'dolot) Even that oblique reference was too much for some. Isaac Mayer Wise reports that Ibn Ezra's commentary was omitted from the curriculum of the Hungarian yeshivot that were the bastion of nineteenth-century Orthodoxy. However, the Torah never claims to be written by Moses, nor does Judaism depend on that principle. As Jakob Petuchowski has pointed out, what really matters is that the Torah comes from God.

Jewish tradition is rich in possibilities. As these events demonstrate, what we sometimes consider to be the traditional Jewish attitude is only one of many different Jewish approaches to the Bible. Indeed, the rabbis assert that there are seventy different ways to interpret the Torah!

We must not allow others to tell us what our own tradition says but explore it firsthand for ourselves. Such knowledge is what ensures our authenticity, which depends on our ability to link our Reform perspectives with the tradition that has helped to shape us. The impact of Ibn Ezra's observation, as mediated by Spinoza, on the history of biblical studies demonstrates the role that Jewish scholarship has played outside of our own community. Becoming familiar with our Jewish tradition can enrich our thinking while teaching us that its insights can be more congenial than we usually allow.

Questions for Discussion

  1. How much authority should Jewish tradition be given in Reform Judaism?
  2. What role should the Bible and its teachings play in Reform Judaism?
Context Determines Meaning
Davar Acher By: 
Cantor Sarah Pscheidt

This week's parashah, D'varim, begins the final book of the Pentateuch. Much of Deuteronomy contains a repetition of laws and regulations that appear elsewhere in Torah. The book begins with a retelling of how the generation liberated from Egypt lost its chance to enter the Promised Land, and it ends with a listing of blessings and curses.

The beginning of this week's portion (Deuteronomy 1:21-39) raises interesting questions. From all of the Israelites' history, Moses chooses to focus on the episode in which spies were sent into Canaan, originally found in Numbers 12. The spies return with a favorable report of the land and a terrifying description of the great strength of the land's inhabitants. The people lose faith in God's promise to help them secure the land, and as a result they are made to wander until they die. Why does Moses choose this particularly chilling event as the context for a retelling of the Ten Commandments from Exodus and much of the Holiness code from Leviticus?

Moses' contemporaries stand at a parallel point in their history, poised to enter the Promised Land. By recalling the incident of the spies, Moses is trying to keep this generation, too, from losing the Promised Land. Moses uses the example of the previous generation's loss of faith to focus the attention of the current generation on the need to have an encompassing faith in God before following God's specific commandments.

Moses himself is not the military leader who, by actions, will lead the people into the Promised Land. Instead, he uses words to form the context through which the people will understand the events that will follow in the next stage of their history.

Moses manipulates the facts in the story of the spies to make his point. The spies are sent out on God's command in Numbers 12. They report on the bounty of the land as well as the strength of the land's inhabitants. The spies themselves conclude that the people are not capable of overcoming the Canaanites. As Moses retells the story in Deuteronomy, the people, not God, ask to send spies. Further, he restates only the spies' report about the goodness of the land, omitting their conclusion about the Canaanites' invincibility. The strength of the Canaanites and the spies' conclusion may be considered moot as Moses then focuses on the people's disheartened reaction. By refashioning the facts of the story, Moses places responsibility for losing the Promised Land squarely on the shoulders of humanity, rather than on God. Implicit in this retelling is the responsibility of the current generation for doing its part to gain the Promised Land.

Questions for Discussion

  1. How do we, in our own generation, use words to form the context through which our actions are understood?
  2. Is it important that your words match your actions? Would you rather have others pay attention to your words or to your deeds when the two do not match?
Reference Materials: 

D'varim, Deuteronomy 1:1–3:22
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,312–1,333; Revised Edition, pp. 1,161–1,173;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,037–1,062