Unfolding Deuteronomy, Chapter Four
*Unfolding Deuteronomy, Chapter Four
*The Divine Spirit and Aleinu
*Two Powerful Hebrew Ideas
*Divorce or Covenant?
*Censoring Free Speech
Unfolding Deuteronomy, Chapter Four
“For this is your wisdom and understanding in the sight of the nations... for what great nation is there... that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this Torah?”
Deuteronomy 4: 6-8
One of the Torah's richest chapters is Deuteronomy 4. You see within it the whole point and purpose of Israel and the very essence of true religion. Now science - from the great Scientific Revolution that the Hebrew Revolution helped spark - is casting light upon Deuteronomy's “statutes and ordinances,” above.
By definition, the statutes – chukim, in Hebrew; “engraved laws” – are mysterious. The statutes, unlike the Torah’s moral laws, don't make clear sense. The moral laws appeal to rationality and logic. They immediately make sense: don’t murder, don’t cheat, don't steal, do establish honest courts and judges, etc. The moral laws are supposed to be Noahide laws: universal laws. They all follow from the remarkable revealed truth that God made ‘man’ “in His image.” But the statutes – the peculiar ordinances pertaining to symbolic observances like shabbat, circumcision, diet and worship – command only Israel.
We don’t know exactly why we do them - we just accept them, recognizing that they must have something to do with making us more God-conscious, and the world a better place - and try to fulfill them.
Then along comes ... science. Making the world smaller while increasing our power to compare the Torah’s statutes with the ritual, worshipful ordinances, observances and customs - of other nations. Thereby making it easier to contextualize and compare them.
Despite the secular-minded culture of our time, familiarity with the Bible is still a prerequisite to basic cultural literacy in the West. And people often pay homage to its stories or some few tenets, like the Golden Rule. But people very rarely are willing to take it on its own terms. It's a serious Hebrew thing requiring Hebrew context, insight - and seriousness. So folks end up mangling and mischaracterizing what they're told are the weird, primitive laws of Israel: equating the eating of shrimp or a violation of Shabbat, for instance, with crimes like theft and murder.
Yet parts of the greatness in the statutes frequently comes out. The People of Israel, few as they are, keep bringing them up to everbody's attention– one way or another, kosher rites show up pretty constantly in world media, for instance – and people get to learn something about statutes like… circumcision, say. Or tefillin… And kosher foods….
So while some nations pursue such ghastly “statutues” as “female circumcision” (which has absolutely nothing to do with the Abrahamic covenant and circumcision of males), the Jews pursue statutes that genuinely improve things. Such as male circumcision, say, which powerfully protects people from sexually transmitted diseases.
... And still we can’t pretend to know all the benefits.
As for tefillin, or the wrapping of phylacteries around the arm and head, related to the statement of faith called the “Shema” (literally, Hear!), from Deuteronomy 6:4 and 6:8, it turns out that doing so is, science reports, remarkably good for the heart. That is, cardiologically.
There’s all kinds of stuff like that in the Torah: good statutes that consistently do good, whether they come from black letter Torah (that is, Scripture itself) or from the duly constituted and universally accepted lawful declarations of the Rabbis. For instance, the command to pause on the edge of one’s bed when one arises, to start the day with a prayer of thanks, “Modeh Ani Lefanecha”: “I gratefully thank You, O living and eternal king, for You have returned my soul to my body with compassion – great is your faithfulness!” It doesn’t just benefit the soul, science says, but also the body. See
Here’s our main point: as time goes by and human knowledge increases, so will our species’ regard for the mysterious “statutes” of the Torah.
Divine Spirit and Aleinu: Two Powerful Hebrew Ideas
Also inside Deuteronomy 4 reside these extremely powerful, very holy ideas:
1) every human being, through his or her own human thoughts and powers, and with no intermediary, can cleave to God. Even though God is ineffable and, in many ways, unknowable. (But we know some few things about Him!) Other, childish nations may pray to fanciful physical “gods” or symbols, but (we are paraphrasing here) you, Israel - every man and woman of you* [See below]- shall not.
2) Our God, the God of Abraham, has no form. Don’t try to delimit Him with silly images and pictures. Every image of God is of something that isn't God.
Another ancient prophecy to appreciate – attributed to a soldier called Achan ben Carmi from Moses' time (Joshua 7:18-26) – is the second paragraph of the great statement of faith called Aleinu. Observant Israel recites it, standing, three times a day. We believe its author was inspired, literally, with ru’ach hakodesh: “holy spirit.” It may be more than 3,000 years old but it’s definitely worth a look.
It sets out the whole schedule and protocol of redemption. First, the worst, most horrible "religious" rites and customs will go. Second, all false gods and values. Then God will make His kingship better known. Fourth, all humanity will call to Him. Fifth, even the most wicked will cease their evil ways. Sixth, the whole world will honor His kingship. Seventh, besides formally honoring Him, people everywhere will become His genuinely conscious servants; Eighth, the new age, the next stage of human history, begins. Starting now, He will reign, obviously and eternally, and godliness and true knowledge of God will suffuse the whole world.
That's a lot to get into a single paragraph, but that's what Aleinu does.
Divorce or Covenant?
Since Christianity began, some Christians have argued that Israel, the Jewish People, is basically kaput; that the Jews had been “in covenant” with God but then, sinning, fell out of it. Muslims often make the same claim. And both claim to be the true inheritors of the old covenant. The Church, or the Community of Islam, are God’s new “light unto the nations.”
Yet Israel keeps being Israel. Humankind remains a grand project which requires the Jewish People – including some geniuses but mostly just plain people, connected in different ways but always somehow connected to the Torah’s precepts of greater God-consciousness - to help bootstrap it upwards. History shows this plainly, if you know where to look. You can see it very clearly just in the newspapers’ obits, where people you never ever imagined were Jewish have moved things along in big surprising ways.
History also shows that this mission is dangerous. So does Scripture. Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant” (Isaiah 53) is Israel, obviously. (People argue about this but all the surrounding chapters speak of the whole Jewish People. Why would this one suddently start talking about just one Jew? It's not a great leap that Isaiah speaks in the singular - of "he" - of the many. It's poetry! It's a staggering leap that he should suddenly start talking about one mortal man or other, never referred to earlier, and never referred to again.)
Scripture, fairly casually, often prophesizes that Israel naturally attracts bad enemies. And, ironically, lots of those enemies have come from those claiming to be Israel’s true inheritors. They claim to be nearer to God ‘than thee.’) But Deuteronomy 4 contradicts all such presumptuous claimants directly: “You [Israel] shall seek the Lord your God and find Him,” at the end of days - and any day (4:29-31). Isaiah directly contradicts them too, speaking to errant Israel: “Show me the bill of your mother’s divorcement… to which of my creditors have I sold you?” (50:1).
(Does God have creditors? No!)
Censoring Free Speech
Considering the connection between free speech and free thought, free speech is truly worth fighting for.
Film-maker Steven Spielberg, who gave the world “Schindler’s List,” and “Lincoln,” among other works, has been growing his Shoah Foundation. The New York Times interviewed him recently, in “Spielberg’s War on Hate,” December 19, 2018. He wants his foundation to go beyond examining the Holocaust in Europe to denounce and raise awareness of “hate” in general.
People should unite against hate,” he says. “Being marginalized, being discriminated against… Everything against black society is also against the Jewish community. Everything against the gay and lesbian, L.G.B.T.Q. community is against black and Jewish communities,” he says.
Jewish people tend to learn early on, almost with their mother's milk, that people who revile other ethnic groups are bound, sooner or later, to revile Jews. Here, though, the broad sweep of Mr. Spielberg’s efforts is concerning.
Not every comment that might be offensive to one group or community springs from hatred. What worries us particularly is the possibility that speech and thought that is not, in fact, hateful, might get denounced, unreasonably, as hate-filled.
The Torah unquestionably disfavors certain kinds of sexual conduct. See Leviticus 18 and 20, especially. It also teaches not to hate the sinner but the sin. So, naturally, it forcefully opposes invidious oppression or any causeless persecution of anybody. It is generally strongly anti-wrath and anti-hate. “A hater is like a murderer,” the Torah teaches (Tosefta Derech Eretz 6.13). But if it’s ANY criticism of the oppressive sexual behaviors that God calls abominable and perverse, or ANY showing of a lack of enthusiasm for it, that ends up classified as “hate speech,” that’s unholy.
by Michael Dallen
*“And HaShem spoke unto YOU out of the midst of the fire: you heard the voice of His words but you saw no form, only a voice.” - Deuteronomy 4:12-13
*"Take good heed of yourselves, for YOU saw no manner of form on the day that HaShem spoke unto you in Horeb (Sinai), out of the midst of the fire. Lest you deal corruptly, and make you a graven image..." Deuteronomy 4:15-16