Sefer Torah and Simulacrum

Shof'tim, Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Oren J. Hayon

The English (originally Greek) names of each of the first four books of Torah relate to the content of their stories. Genesis is about beginnings, Exodus is about the exit from Egypt, Leviticus is about the Levitical laws of priesthood and purity, and Numbers begins with a count of Israel’s population. Deuteronomy, however, takes its name from the Greek meaning "second telling." Thus, the name of the book refers not to Deuteronomy’s content but to its form: this book is presented as Moses’s retelling of the Israelite national epic.

In this way, the Book of Deuteronomy reminds us of the practical truth that all Scripture is more powerful in its repetition than in its revelation. This message is encapsulated in Parashat Shof'tim’s commandment (Deuteronomy 17:18) that Israel's kings must carry with them a scroll on which is written a "copy of this Teaching [Torah]," mishneh haTorah hazot. Note, then, that the mitzvah to produce copies of the Torah has been embedded within Deuteronomy, itself a small-scale replica of the rest of Torah. It's a delightful image to contemplate: sacred copies of sacred copies, spiraling like the parchment of a Sefer Torah, winding in upon themselves in ever-tightening coils of holy text.

We must also note that the Hebrew words of Deuteronomy 17:18 reappear many centuries later, when Maimonides appropriates them for the title of the Mishneh Torah, his masterpiece of Jewish law. The Mishneh Torah is a fastidiously organized legal code distilled from the voluminous legal opinions of the Talmud’s sages, presented in an orderly format easily referenced by its readers. Maimonides believed that with the streamlined format of the Mishneh Torah he had produced a single volume containing all of the rules necessary for living a Jewish life.

This helps us understand why Maimonides chose the title he did for this work. He must have seen himself as upholding the commandment from Parashat Shof'tim: repeating and retelling God's law. Maimonides’ addition to the previous replications of God's word finally results in the textual equivalent of a Matryoshka (Russian nesting) doll, one retelling nested inside another, each one a successively larger copy of the predecessor concealed within it.

In creating the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides had excised the broad and meandering disputes of Rabbinic law that had taken place over the preceding 900 years or so in order to present his readers with concise listings of the sages’ conclusions. But the volume wasn’t received precisely as Maimonides had hoped. Far from being universally welcomed by the Jewish world, the Mishneh Torah inspired resentment and anger in many communities around the globe.

Why was this so? It appears that opposition to the work stemmed from an anxiety that Maimonides was seeking to replace study of the Law. With a book listing all of the answers about Jewish Law, the critics wondered, why would any reader bother to take part in twisting debate over the questions? And so, in Maimonides’ zeal to improve upon the directive of Deuteronomy 17:18, he had paradoxically angered many learned Jews who saw the Mishneh Torah as an attempt to supplant the contemplation of Torah, a spiritual imperative in its own right.

In a famous 1988 essay, the French postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard speaks of phenomena he calls "Simulacra and Simulations" (trans. Shelia Glaser [Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1995]). The essay contains a critique about societies that produce "simulations" of reality (think of reality television programs or Disney World's Main Street, U.S.A.). At some point, Baudrillard charges, the simulation actually replaces the reality it purports to imitate and the real world effectively ceases to be. (For example, virtually no American towns today resemble Disney World's Main Street, U.S.A.) At this point in its development, Baudrillard tells us, the simulation has become a "simulacrum," and true reality begins to vanish from memory.

Interestingly, the language in which Baudrillard speaks about the social threat of simulacra sounds strikingly similar to the language by which Maimonides might have been criticized after the publication of the Mishneh Torah. Social order under these circumstances, Baudrillard cautions us, is liable to erode and, indeed, threatens to undermine the authority of God. He warns against

. . . this facility [simulacra] have of erasing God from the consciousness of people, and the overwhelming, destructive truth which they suggest: that ultimately there has never been any God; that only simulacra exist; indeed that God himself has only ever been his own simulacrum.

In other words, the danger of becoming too enamored of the simulations we create is that we risk losing altogether our moral center. The ability to create and understand symbols is a unique human gift, but by immersing ourselves too deeply in the process of creating replicas of reality, we run the risk of losing the knowledge of what is real in God’s world. Baudrillard's insight, finally, helps us understand the hostile opposition to the Mishneh Torah and reminds us of how delicate the urgent challenge of Deuteronomy 17:18 truly is.

The Bible is unambiguous and clear: Israel's leaders are commanded to produce for themselves a copy of the Torah as a companion during their days of leadership. The guidance of our sacred texts only work effectively when they are followed by our communities' leaders, and when their truth is copied and disseminated widely in synagogues, in study halls, and in Jewish hearts.

But that act of replication carries with it an awesome responsibility. All of us—not just Israel’s kings—are charged with the opportunity to serve as living, breathing copies of Torah. Each religious choice we make, each spiritual decision, each commitment to bring goodness into the world can itself serve as a tiny mishneh Torah: a simulation of God’s presence, created in miniature. But we are obligated to remember that the religious fidelity and goodness we human beings bring into the world cannot replace God’s presence itself. Whatever replicas of God’s word we carry with us cannot supplant the pure realization of divinity we find when encountering God face-to-face in the words of Torah. Only with that humble realization can we be assured that this Torah will continue to unspool endlessly into the future. Only with that knowledge can we be certain that the countless retellings of Torah nestled within each other will not conceal, but will eternally illuminate, the sacred stories that will continue to be told for generations to come.

A Torah in My Pocket

Daver Acher By: Rabbi Martin P. Beifield Jr.

What do CNN personality Nancy Grace, U.S. representatives Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich, U.S. senators Carl Levin and Robert Byrd, former U.S. senator Trent Lott, and the late ABC news anchor Peter Jennings all have in common? They all carried (or said they carried) a copy of the U.S. Constitution in their pocket. What is this about? It neither makes them a constitutional expert nor grants them any authority. The real purpose is symbolic. Perhaps they are intending to say, "I cherish this document," or "I cherish the entire system of government represented by this document." In the above cases, they might also be saying, "Vote for me," or "Watch my show."

In this week's Torah portion, the Jewish people are given a series of requirements regarding a king, if they chose to have one. The king must be a member of the Jewish people not a foreigner. He can’t have too many horses or wives or be too wealthy. The ancient rabbis discuss at some length the actual limits of how many wives and horses and much wealth he is permitted.

Most important, though, the Torah requires the king to arrange to have and read a copy of the Torah. It tells us why too: to teach him reverence for God, the way he is supposed to act, and humility; things that might not come naturally to kings (Deuteronomy 17:18–20).

An ancient rabbi (in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 21b) suggested that the king make two copies of the Torah, one in very small writing, which he should keep physically on his person (a pocket-sized version!) and one for the archives. The king can’t realistically be expected to use the Torah-in-his-pocket. The ancient rabbi even concedes that it will only be an amulet worn on his sleeve. Its real purpose is symbolic.

We might think it is supposed to remind him of his obligations, though he will see it as a justification for his rule. The king will always tell us what he is doing is right and consistent with the Law. He’ll pat his arm and tell us he checks the Law all the time. We shouldn’t take his word for it. In the final analysis, we have to take responsibility for the behavior of the king who acts in our name. We do so by taking out the full-sized version of the Law, showing him where he is wrong, and demanding that he follow it correctly. The copy in the archives is for us.

Reference Materials

Shof'tim, Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,456–1,477; Revised Edition, pp. 1,292–1,315;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,141–1,164