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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat R'eih 5765
Mahar Hodesh
Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17
September 3, 2005     29 Av 5765

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

For a book that purports to be but a reprise of the other books of the Torah, Deuteronomy abounds with puzzling discrepancies. Here is just a sample drawn from this week's parashah: First, the consumption of the celebratory meal that starts Passover is shifted from the home to the sanctuary (16:2; cf. Exodus 12:3-10, 24). Second, farmers are to consume annually their tithes at the sanctuary rather than turn them over to the Levites officiating there. Only every third year did Deuteronomy instruct Israelites to deposit their tithes at their town gates for indigents, who included Levites no longer in the employ of the sanctuary (14:22, 28; cf. Numbers 18:21-32).

Third, farmers are now granted a full year to bring the firstborn of their flocks to the sanctuary as an offering, rather than as formerly on the eighth day after birth (15:19; cf. Exodus 22:29). And finally, Deuteronomy severs the link between eating meat and sacrifices (12:20-25). Previously, all domesticated animals destined for consumption had to be offered as a sacrifice at the sanctuary (Leviticus 17:3-9). Thus Saul, the first king of a united monarchy, reprimanded his ravenous troops after a victory over the Philistines for devouring their livestock without first offering them as a sacrifice. Saul hurriedly erected an altar at which his soldiers could slaughter and sacrifice the animals they wished to eat (I Samuel 14:31-35). In striking contrast, Deuteronomy permits profane slaughtering. Henceforth, animals may be slaughtered and consumed outside the precincts of the sanctuary, where those who are ritually impure can also partake.

I have not chosen these examples at random. They are all departures dictated by the major innovation of Deuteronomy, the curbing of the cultic life of ancient Israel to a single sanctuary. A systemic change gave rise to a profusion of legal anomalies. At Mount Sinai, God had countenanced multiple sacred sites: "In every place where I cause my name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you" (Exodus 20:21). The altar was to be a simple structure of clay to allow for the creation of an unlimited number of local sanctuaries.

To Deuteronomy, such a decentralized order of worship smacked of paganism. It is no accident that the concept of a centralized sanctuary follows directly upon a command to eradicate the dispersion of idolatrous sites that contaminate Canaan's countryside (12:2-4). Local sanctuaries lent themselves to a diversity of beliefs and practices hard to square with Deuteronomy's transcendent theology. Deuteronomy sought uniformity: "You shall not act as we now act here, every man as he pleases" (12:8).

The repetition of a key Hebrew word accentuates the move from many to one. Deuteronomy uses the same nonspecific and mundane noun makom (place) to refer to the many objectionable pagan shrines and the one licit Israelite shrine where God will establish God's name (12:2, 5). Makom, accordingly, signifies both the sacred and the nonsacred, or better polar opposites. Clearly, multiple rites were felt to diminish the majesty of an unrivalled supreme deity.

The closure of local Israelite sanctuaries, in sum, amounted to a religious revolution that called for many adjustments. Distance had suddenly become a significant factor in the fulfillment of ritual obligations. For instance, while Deuteronomy insisted that the Passover sacrifices be done at the central sanctuary, it granted permission to return home on the first day of the holiday (16:7). Then too, shutting down the local shrines put countless Levites, who had staffed them, out of work. Though they could join the priests (the Kohanim) at the central sanctuary to service it (18:6-8), most stayed home to survive on the dole. "Do not neglect the Levite in your community, for he has no hereditary portion as you have" (14:27).

Obviously, the loss of a nearby holy place made it impossible for Israelites to bring their firstborn animals on the eighth day or animals for home consumption for ritual slaughtering. Conversely, the new strands binding the individual to the central sanctuary elevated the festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, with their agricultural thrust, into truly national pilgrimages.

For nearly two centuries, critical scholarship has contended with much justification that the core of Deuteronomy is a seventh-century BCE document intentionally attributed to Moses. Its actual historical context is the reign of the Judean king Josiah (640-609 BCE), who came to the throne some eight decades after the crushing of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE by the armies of the Assyrian Empire. Second Kings relates that Josiah's high priest Hilkiah discovered "a scroll of the Teaching [Torah]" (22:8; in Second Chronicles 34:14, "a scroll of the Lord's Teaching given by Moses") during the course of a renovation of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. On the basis of this alarming text, Josiah insisted a sweeping cleansing of the Temple and the realms of Judah and Israel of all pagan shrines, icons, and priestly personnel. He also ordered for the first time the offering of the Passover sacrifice in the Temple. "Thus he fulfilled the terms of the Teaching recorded in the scroll the priest Hilkiah had found in the House of the Lord" (II Kings 23:24).

More recently, the late Professor of Bible at JTS, H.L. Ginsberg, had suggested that the impulse behind Deuteronomy derived not from political ambition (to fill the void left up north by the destruction of Samaria and the temporary inattention of Assyria) but from religious remorse. In the decades prior to Samaria's fall, the prophet Hosea inveighed against its rampant pagan practices. "For Ephraim [the Northern Kingdom] has multiplied altars - for guilt. Israel has ignored his Maker and built temples" (8:11, 14). Implicit in this denunciation was the ideal of a single central sanctuary dedicated to the universal God who had redeemed Israel from Egypt. After 722 BCE, Hosea's cultic indictment filtered south to Jerusalem to inspire a religious revolution that might spare Judah the fate of its estranged sibling (Israelian Heritage of Judaism).

What particularly appeals to me in Ginsberg's thesis is the pattern of taking refuge in a book. Confronted by the loss of their kinsmen and the terrifying prospect of meeting the same fate, Josiah's circle found comfort in the fragile contours of the word. The pattern was destined to become emblematic of Jewish behavior in dark times. The Torah would emerge in final form from the ashes of the First Temple, the Tanakh from those of the Second, the Mishnah from the Bar Kokhba debacle down to Moses Maimonides in the twelfth century, Yosef Karo in the sixteenth and Emanuel Ringelblum in the Warsaw ghetto. When barbarians pour through the gates, it is the written word of the vanquished that will eventually outlive them all.

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch's commentary on Parashat R'eih are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.