"If every Jew does whatever s/he wants, wherever s/he wants, Judaism won't survive another generation."
You can imagine this as a Twitter entry (a tweet), the beginning of a scholarly article on Jewish survival, as an ad on the side of a bus in Jerusalem, or as the opening line to a High Holy Day sermon given by your rabbi a month from now. Yet, the idea is nothing new. For as long as there have been Jews, we have struggled with personal practice (or lack thereof) endangering communal survival. This week's Torah portion reveals just how much we have in common with our biblical ancestors, and how much we can learn from the tensions they encountered between the autonomy of individual practice and the burgeoning authority of a centralized religious institution.
My favorite lines of Torah are the ones that could be lifted off the parchment and placed into our world. These are the lines that show us what our ancestors were doing or feeling as they sought to encounter God as individuals within a community. So when we read Deuteronomy 12:8, "You shall not act at all as we now act here, each of us as we please . . ." we hear the voice of a community struggling with the consequences of permitting each individual to worship God however and wherever was personally meaningful.
As Professor Marc Brettler observes, "Deuteronomy is a very special book. Almost any passage from it is recognizable instantly due to its characteristic vocabulary, and distinctive phrases and rhythms. Its ideas-especially the importance of worshipping one God in one fashion and in one place . . . -also set it apart from the rest of the Torah" (How to Read the Bible [Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005], pp. 93-4)
If you read the Deuteronomy 12:8 passage literally, you become witness to this transition from a sacrificial cult of the wilderness, where you could set up an altar to God anywhere to the worship of "one God in one fashion and in one place" with our arrival on the soil of the Promised Land. In his commentary to the passage, Nachmanides describes the sacrificial practices of our people in the wilderness as chaotic, everyone doing what he wanted because he could. Therefore, Nachmanides sees this verse as dictating a new approach toward sacrifice-a shift from individual practice to one of communal control.
But, if you read Deuteronomy as a document written in the time of King Josiah (621 b.c.e.), when the people were already living and worshipping God on "the Land" (that we now call Israel), then you become witness to a paradigm shift of power, a shift from autonomy of practice to centralized sacrifice and worship of God demanded by those in authority in an effort to maintain control. History teaches us that whenever something is forbidden it was being done. We can practically hear the voices of our ancestors, especially those far from Jerusalem, protesting limits on their choices and practices in the name of a centralized religion.
From this perspective, engaging in the traditional analytical approach (p'shat, remez, d'rash, and sod, known collectively as Pardes) is useful. The p'shat (literal meaning) of our passage is simply that when you come into "the Land" you may no longer exercise your autonomy to sacrifice wherever you please, as you did in the wilderness. The remez (hint within the text) is that having a centralized authority is a problem for a lot of Jews who like doing things their own way. (We all know some of those Jews, don't we?) The d'rash (the lesson of our text for our time) teaches that there will always be those who fear that spiritual autonomy can become dangerous when it threatens to destroy the survival of our communal religion and our community. The sod (the hidden secret) may very well be that Jews who do "whatever they please" and don't perpetuate the centralized institutions of Jewish life (primarily the synagogue, today), may find personal fulfillment, but in doing so may very well threaten long-term Jewish survival in the process.
Rashi raises the issue of God's power and authority by asking, "Do you bring freewill offerings to God because it is 'pleasing in your eyes,' or because it is an obligation imposed upon you?" For most Reform Jews, the idea that we practice our faith or connect with our God out of obligation runs contrary to the prime value of personal autonomy and choice in observance, which were the cornerstones of our Reform Jewish forefathers' ideology. Yet, their world is not ours. They were coming from a place of extreme communal authority, and a community that based its choices upon knowledge and observance of traditional Judaism. If my teacher Rabbi Eugene Borowitz taught me anything, it is that authentic Jewish autonomy must come from a knowledgeable understanding of the choices offered by our tradition. A Judaism that favored personal autonomy offered freedoms that enabled those early Reformers to live in the modern world, while continuing to practice their Judaism on their own terms. Our engagement with greater society is quite different today. We have no battle to become part of modernity. Instead, we find ourselves in the spiritual wilderness once again. Wherever we live as secularly comfortable Jews, even in Israel, personal practice and choice have come at a very steep price, and have not always come as a result of knowledge.
The lesson of Deuteronomy, and perhaps the lesson for our time, is that the price of doing "whatever we please" could cost us our Jewish future. The voices of Deuteronomy challenge us to establish a balance between our spiritual needs and convenience with our communal needs for a standardized Jewish practice and sense of religious obligation that will ensure our survival.
(This d'var Torah was distributed previously by the URJ.)
Rabbi Amy R. Perlin, D. D., is a summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Princeton University, and was ordained from the New York School of HUC-JIR in 1982. She is the Senior Rabbi of Temple B'nai Shalom in Fairfax Station, Virginia.