The second portion of Deuteronomy, Va-et’chanan, is an unusual Torah portion in many respects. Not only does it contain both the Ten Commandments and Sh’ma passages, let alone a number of other elements that have entered into our liturgy, but it is also read after Tishah B’Av (the ninth day of Av), launching the seven Shabbatot of consolation leading up to Rosh HaShanah. As it is recited, Jews throughout the world evoke the Revelation at Sinai and reassert the continuity of the covenant following their commemoration of the destruction of the Temple and the loss of Jewish sovereignty in Palestine nearly two thousand years ago. Both the parashah and the haftarah portion read with it (Isaiah, chapter 40) are evocative and powerful, each in its own way and in their combination. The Torah portion presents texts and images that remain core, or foundational, in our Judaism to this very day, while the haftarah suggests prophetic consolation and justice in the context of ephemeral, fleeting, human experience.
Parashat Va-et’chanan also presents its interpretive choices and difficulties to contemporary Jews. Chapter 4 contains not simply a listing and explanation of our covenantal laws, but also a carefully crafted series of claims and incentives in support of the divinely ordained law. For example, its account of the Sinai theophany is understood to be not merely descriptive of the Revelation, but also demonstrative of the power and glory of God, and of God’s commitment to—and expectation of—Israel (Deuteronomy 4:32-39 and Nachmanides, especially on 4:32).
Recognition and awe of the overwhelming power of God, and of God’s choice of the Israelites as a nation on account of the ancestors, become important parts of the rationale for adherence to the covenant and its demands. The promises of survival, especially goodness and length of days for those who abide by the covenant and their progeny, also reinforce the case for “doing the right thing” (Deuteronomy 4:40). Yet, one of the most interesting and powerful reasons for following God’s commandments occurs earlier in the chapter. There, Moses calls upon his constituency to verify and affirm that no other nation has—or could have—as just and “righteous” a collection of laws as he sets out before his people (4:8).
The Deuteronomic notion that the ensemble of commandments that constitute the covenant is just and superior to other systems of law has been expressed in different ways. For example, Rashi asserted that Jewish law rules were “fair and acceptable” (Rashi on Deuteronomy 4:8). The Italian commentator Obadiah b. Jacob Sforno (fifteenth to sixteenth century) also wrote: “the reason you will be deemed wise by the nations when following the laws and instructions of God is that there is no nation that has . . . just laws that have no interest in the benefit of the judge, or in the reward or recompense of cantors or scribes, but their interest is in law and justice” (Sforno on Deuteronomy 4:8). In other words, one interpretation of this verse has been that while other nations’ laws reflected the interests of the sovereign and privileged classes, Jewish law was wholly impartial to power.
Since the onset of the Enlightenment our perceptions of law in general, and Jewish law in particular, have evolved. This year, we celebrate a centennial to the publication of the first part of Asher Gulak’s Institutions of Jewish Law (Hebrew). Gulak would eventually publish the entire volume after World War I, in 1926, and become one of the founding fathers of the modern discipline of Jewish law at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In his introduction to the volume, he too remarks on the survival of Jewish law throughout the ages, often in the absence of organized Jewish governance, because of the “foundations of faith and justice upon which it is established.” Indeed, he cites Deuteronomy 4:8 and comments on the special connection that Jews draw between law and ethics. For Gulak and other positivists, law is primarily promulgated and enforced by a sovereign using power, or “external sanction.” In this view, we follow laws, even when we do so less than wholeheartedly, because they are enforced. On the other hand, ethical action reflects what ought to be done, and is driven by internal compulsion rather than external force. Perhaps influenced by commentaries on this verse as well as centuries of Rabbinic lawmaking, Gulak suggests that one of the distinctions of Jewish law is the sense that both Jewish law and ethics originate in the same source. He writes: “[Jewish] Law does not derive from sovereignty or government, and its core value is not the maintenance of a social regime or authority, but only the enforcement of private, personal justice. This explains why Jewish law always relies more on private individuals and their fairness of action than it does on social governance and its institution” (p. 7).
Our reading of Va-et’chanan this week offers us an opportunity to reflect on the complexity of law, and the survival of our sense of the covenant that is both associated with law and transcends it. More specifically, as we critically evaluate the Deuteronomist’s argument for the fulfillment of mitzvot, we also may consider the survival and the significance of Jewish normative action that enriches our lives and binds us together. Careful examination of the claims and promises made with regard to the law, as well as Rabbinic readings of them, may fail to inspire our complete trust and credence. Yet, as we study this text we may marvel at the continued existence, creativity, and contributions, of our Jewish communities of reading, faith, and practice.
Dr. Jonathan Cohen , associate professor of Talmud and Halachic Literature, was appointed dean of the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) on September 1, 2011. He has served as the Director of the HUC-UC Ethics Center since January 2001.