Devarim: religious reform has a long and honourable history, even Moses did it.

deuteronomy scroll qumran2

The book of Deuteronomy is quite different in style, language and focus from the earlier books of Torah.  It is much more concerned with the practicalities of living in the land of Israel, and it focuses on opposing the idolatry of the surrounding cultures and peoples,  It has been posited that this is the book that was found in the Temple in the time of King Josiah, and which enabled him to create the major religious reforms in 622 BCE, reminding the people of the covenant they had with the one God, and emphasising the importance of a centralized Temple in Jerusalem, rather than the use of many local hilltop shrines.

 Rabbi Yehudah Shaviv calls this book “the book of second chances”. He writes :”If we seek some unique feature of this Sefer we shall discover that one of its characteristics – if not the crux of its whole message – is the concept of a “second chance”. In other words, even if one has failed and sinned, there is always an opening for repair and improvement, for change and renewal.” Thus, for Shaviv, the book of Deuteronomy is primarily a book about Teshuvah, about repentance and  about return to relationship with God, to do what God really wants us to doing.  The calendar of Readings is always arranged for this portion to be read on the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, as if in reminder that even though cataclysm faces the Jewish people and their land, there will always be a way back to God.

I like the idea of there being a book of second chances. A mechanism to wipe away all the distracting accretions and false starts of living and get us back to the real purpose of our lives. Judaism has a whole series of such mechanisms – from the Teshuvah process that begins in a few weeks in Ellul and takes us to Yom Kippur, or the cyclical reading of Torah so we come back to the same texts every year and are able to understand them afresh. And one of the most powerful mechanisms is the way that Judaism continues to reinvent itself, so we are no longer like any of the various expressions of religion of the extended biblical period, nor that of Temple times; nor of the Mishnaic or later Talmudic period, nor Pale of Settlement. Judaism has always accepted the past but framed it into an understanding suitable for the present. Be it the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides (for which he was nearly put under a ban) or the Shulchan Aruch of Joseph Caro, Jews have clarified Judaism for their own times. This process begins right in the sidra of Devarim: in verse 5 of chapter one we are told “ho’eel Moshe bay’air et hatorah hazot – Moses began to clarify this Torah.

 The midrash (Tanchuma) says that it is “inconceivable that Moses would have allowed the Torah to remain unclear to the Israelites” and Rashi suggests that the phrase teaches that Moses translated the Torah into the seventy languages of the world in order to allow the Jewish people to always have access to it. Whatever was the intention of the text, what it gives us is a proof text that Torah is to be clarified and understood by the Jewish people in their own times. 

 This weekend (2010) we are celebrating the 200th Anniversary of the service in Seesen, Germany, which marks the beginning of Reform Judaism. It was a service deliberately created to be accessible to the Jewish community of the time, with some of the (shortened) service and the sermon in the vernacular. The Judaism of Israel Jacobson who created the Seesen Temple and this dedication service was greatly influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, with reason and rational scientific principles applied to both Jewish texts and their  interpretation  and understanding. The old system of believing ideas unconditionally and reading the commentators uncritically no longer worked in the face of academic freedom in other areas. Judaism could be held up to rational systems of thought and its riches presented in a modern way.

 Reform Judaism is one more punctuation in the journey of Judaism from biblical times until now. Just as in the midrash which tells the story of Moses sitting in the study house of Rabbi Akiva and finding his teaching unfamiliar and even incomprehensible, but he is reassured when Akiva speaks of the roots of his teaching in the chain of tradition that goes all the way back to Moses, so too does our understanding sometimes look distant from the context of the biblical or Talmudic world, yet it is rooted in the principles of Judaism – the principles of covenant relationship with God, our shared task with God to complete and perfect the world, in the relationship we have with the Land of Israel, and the close and binding relationship we have with Torah.

 Since Moses began to clarify Torah for the benefit of the people who would go into the land without him, the tradition of clarifying and making sense of Torah for each generation and its needs has continued. This too is part of our tradition, and we fail to follow it at our peril, creating Judaism  as a fixed and immutable thing to conserve a past that is no longer with us. In 200 years Reform Judaism has moved a long way, and it continues to change with each generation. We follow the model of Moses, never completing the journey but never letting go of what is important.

(First written 2010 on the 200th anniversary of Reform Judaism with the service in Seesen. Picture of the Deuteronomy Scroll found in Qumran)

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