The Book of Deuteronomy is radical in every way. Initially, it seems that it’s “just” a review of key events, lots of criticism of the Israelites, and repetition of the core values encountered in previous books through the lens of Moses. But in fact it is wildly radical — different from all the other books of the Torah in both form and function. Deuteronomy differs in form as it repeats so much of what has already been narrated in previous books and it is the first extended interpretation of the books of the Torah that came beforehand. This internal self-reflexive and self-reflective commentary would be radical enough, but it is even more striking because at times the interpretation is different from the way the idea appears earlier in the Bible. In other words, the Book of Deuteronomy confirms that as much as we are the “People of the Book,” Judaism at its core is, as Rabbi Prof. David Hartman (1935-2013) and others great thinkers have stressed, an interpretive tradition (David Hartman, A Living Covenant [Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights,1998]).
As if intra-biblical interpretation isn’t dramatic enough, Deuteronomy is also radically innovative. In preparing the Israelites for entry into the Land, the Maharal1 and others note that Deuteronomy introduces 70 new commandments and practices. Given its dramatically different form, what is its distinctive function?
What sets Deuteronomy apart in terms of function is that it stresses less the Divine foundations of law, and ethics and more the role of the human being in interpreting and applying the Torah to a new context. Nachmanides, the medieval commentator, even introduces the idea that perhaps this book is not as sacred as the earlier books, because it clearly has more than a small element of human interpretation, and is not entirely directly sourced from the mouth of God (Nachmanides of Deuteronomy 1:1).
How can the Book of Deuteronomy, which is part of a divine document — the Torah — be simultaneously human? Because Torah cannot be relevant without human involvement, human interpretation, and human experience.
Certainly much of the book, especially its first Torah portion, D’varim, highlights the major events that have formed the Israelite people from Moses' view point, and is primarily focused on preparing the people to enter into the Promised Land. Much of the book seems intended to ensure that the Israelites understand well enough core values, innumerable land-specific commandments, and the ultimate goal of creating an ideal society.
Given the experiences of the imperfect Israelite people and the very different cultures of peoples already dwelling in the Land, combined with the stark realities of the Land’s environment, the mission to settle the Land seems utterly absurd. The scouts (“spies”) have just returned with very mixed reviews of whether or not it’s even possible to exist in such a land (Numbers 13). But that absurdity and that greatness of mission precisely characterizes the Jewish experience from the beginning. After all, it was Abraham — alone and only recently converted, childless and teacher-less — who responds to God’s absurd promises of progeny, blessing, and peoplehood (Genesis 12).
The covenant established between Abraham and God can only begin to become real in Deuteronomy. Only now is it clear that the Israelites have been transformed from a set of tribes into a viable nation. Only now that the Torah has been established as their supreme “guidebook” and master blueprint for an ideal society is it possible to imagine that these desert wandering, stiff-necked, bickering, theologically confused former slaves have a chance at creating an ideal civic society. The Torah and all its interpretations, form the foundation of the knowledge, wisdom, and communal structures necessary to create a viable society based on core ethical ideals of justice, righteousness, and monotheism.
Moses, more than anything else, wanted to be a good teacher who ensured that the Israelites clearly understood what they needed to know and had a clear sense of purpose about our destiny. Moses offered a new perspective on what might be — and on what is necessary to achieve it. In order to create a civil society one must first and foremost have fair judges: “Decide justly between anyone and a fellow Israelite or a stranger….You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out the low and high alike. Fear no one, for judgment is God’s….” (Deuteronomy 1:16-17). A civil society must have functional courts that operate with mercy and justice. A civil society must be based on core ethics. But a sacred society must also have a strong sense of God’s expectations, and God’s presence and protection in order to have a sense of safety and security (Deuteronomy 3:18-22). Only then is it possible to strive toward becoming an ideal society.
Moses, the once self-deprecating, hesitant teacher, mentored into becoming a supreme leader, and eventually a wise judge and legislator is by definition the first “rabbinic” interpreter of the tradition. He is thus, Moshe Rabbeinu. This interpretive move, according to Nachmanides, “had to be done” (Nachmanides on Deuteronomy 1:5). At the core of our engagement with Torah is an immediate move toward textual interpretation. The interpretive moves that Moses first made early in Deuteronomy are the foundation of what we have become.
1. The Maharal is the commentator Judah Loew ben Bezalel, (d1609) widely known as the Maharal of Prague.
Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Ph.D. serves Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion as the National Director of Recruitment and Admissions and Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought and Ethics. She was also named President's Scholar in 2013. Prior to this appointment, she served as Vice President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Rabbi Sabath earned a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary and has co-authored two books and published numerous articles in the Jerusalem Post, the Huffington Post, the Times of Israel and other venues. She is currently writing a book on covenant theology and co-editing a volume with Rabbi Rachel Adler, Ph.D. on ethics and gender.
It’s no accident that Deuteronomy, meaning “second law” in Greek, is a name given to the Book of D’varim. For centuries, commentators have regarded the Deuteronomy as different from the other books of Torah in that it is Moses’ repetition of the law. No other book of Torah begins by clearly asserting, “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan” (Deuteronomy 1:1, Parashat D'varim). And, as Rabbi Sabath teaches above, Deuteronomy differs from the other books in another significant way: as he retells the story, Moses becomes the first commentator.
Moses is unique among our biblical teachers in his close relationship with God, as we learn in the book’s final chapter, “Never again did there arise a prophet like Moses — whom the Eternal singled out, face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10). But his modeling for us the role of commentator raises an important question: If we are to follow in Moses’ footsteps and abide by his instruction, are we, too, meant and called upon to interpret and ascribe meanings to the words of Torah?
We find one answer in the next portion of Deuteronomy, Va-e’tchanan, where we read, v’shinantam l’vanecha v’dibarta bam, (Deuteronomy 6:7). The translation in the revised edition of The Torah: A Modern Commentary gives us, “Impress them upon your children. Recite them ...” But the word, shinantam also means “repeat,” rendering the first part of the phrase as, “You shall repeat them [the words] to your children.” Jewish communities take this instruction seriously, taking measures to ensure that the text is taught just as it appears in the scroll word-for-word, as we read, “You shall not add anything to what I command you nor take anything away from it… “ (Deuteronomy 4:2). Even today, in many synagogues, a prompter will stand near the Torah reader to correct mistakes in trope and pronunciation, to help ensure that we do not change or imbue an altered meaning to the text.
But the second part of the phrase, v’dibarta bam, shown as “Recite them,” also means “and you shall speak of them.” This tells us that each of us should seek to understand Torah with our own hearts and minds, and then impart that to others as we “speak of them [the words].”
D’varim reminds us that God spoke to all of us at Sinai: including the post-slave generation, including us today (Deuteronomy 5:3). With Moses as our teacher, God spoke to each person with his or her own lens, point of view, and — yes — ability to interpret.
Audrey Merwin edits Reform Voices of Torah, the Monday edition of Ten Minutes of Torah. She also teaches and in the learning center at the United Synagogue of Hoboken, where she frequently leads services and reads Torah.
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
Shabbat Chazon, Third Haftarah of Affliction, Isaiah 1:1–27
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,590–1,594, Revised Edition, pp. 1,180–1,183