The Ending That Wasn’t

Ha'azinu By :  David Hoffman Posted On Sep 25, 2015 / 5776 | Main Commentary | Israel

We Jews are not a religious lot. In fact, by a variety of metrics cited in the recent Pew report, Jews are less religious than any other religious group in America. For instance, only one quarter of Jews say religion is “very important” in their lives, compared with more than half of Americans overall. More to the point that I’d like to explore, a belief in God is much more common among the general non-Jewish public than among Jews. The latest Pew report tells us that amongst people who identify as Conservative Jews, (only) 41 percent said they “certainly” believe in God. This data point becomes more interesting when compared to the 78 percent of Conservative Jews who said that remembering the Holocaust is essential for Jewish identity. A commitment to God received almost half the endorsement of that of the imperative to remember the horrors perpetrated against the Jewish people in the last century!

Most people who identify as Jews see no conflict between being Jewish and not believing in God. Indeed, it was only last year when Jay Lefkowitz provocatively described in the pages of Commentary the rise of a group he called the Social Orthodox. After sharing his practice of beginning each day with prayers, Lefkowitz explained he was “really not sure how God fit into my life.” For me, as a Jew who must intentionally work on his relationship with God, I appreciated his honesty and found his comment reflective of my own spiritual life at times. But we parted company where he expressed comfort with his non-spirituality. Lefkowitz did not seem to yearn or aspire for a closer engagement with the Ultimate Mystery of the Universe. Despite being a ritual-performing and observant Jew, Lefkowitz told his readers “theological questions didn’t really occupy much of my attention and certainly weren’t particularly germane to my life as an observant Jew.” The raison d’être of the Orthodox group he was describing was the survival of the Jewish people, not a life of service and relationship with God.

This past Shabbat, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, in a devar Torah exploring the place of discourse about God within our community, brought two interesting data points to our attention. According to the Pew study, 77 percent of Modern Orthodox Jews believe in God and yet—strangely—90 percent of Modern Orthodox Jews believe that the State of Israel was given by God to the Jewish people! Seemingly, Israel brings out feelings of belief among the not-so-faithful. Well, now I was curious about our religious camp. Quizzically, the trend was repeated. Again, while 41 percent of Conservative Jews responded positively to an absolute belief in God, 54 percent of Conservative Jews believe that God gave us the Land of Israel! Piety again seems to make a cameo in our interpretation of international relations.

For both Conservative and Modern Orthodox communities, there were more Jews prepared to ascribe to God our right to the Land of Israel and our State than there were Jews who acknowledge the existence of God. Seidler-Feller proposed that this phenomenon, of Jews believing more in the Land and our claim to it than in God, may explain how membership in a political lobby has almost taken on the quality of a distinctly American form of religious expression for Jews.

I would like to suggest that this concern that a commitment to the Land might eclipse a commitment to the Giver-of-the-Land was addressed in the concluding chapters of the last book of the Torah. A central theme propelling the entire narrative of the Torah, beginning with God’s promise to Abraham, is the gift of the Land of Israel as the ultimate realization of the Covenant. The inheritance of the Land looms so large in this narrative that Rashi in his opening words to his commentary on Genesis states that the entire story of creation is only told to make the point that God—as Creator of heaven and earth—is entitled to give God’s creation to whomever God wants. According to Rashi, the creation narrative legitimates the Jewish people’s claim to the Land. Here creation itself serves the Land.

And yet—isn’t it interesting that the Torah does not give a crescendo to the tension that drives the drama for five books? That Moses never enters the Land we understand, but what about the Jewish people? As Professor Moshe Greenberg has written—“The history recounted in the Torah cries to be supplemented by the account of the Conquest of Canaan.” (Understanding Exodus, 11) Biblical critics speak of the Hexateuch—the five books of the Torah and the Book of Joshua. With the Book of Joshua and the conquest and fulfillment of God’s promise made to the Fathers, we have a narrative that coheres with an appropriate resolution.

But the constitution of the Jewish people (the Torah) ends without entry into the Land and Professor Greenberg argues: “This is a fact of the first importance.” With the absence of entry into the Promised Land, the Torah focuses our attention away from the Land and onto the covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish People. Moses sings his last song to the Jewish people in our parashah. It is a poem about a faithful God (Deut. 32:4) who in the end will deliver and protect the people Israel. God’s claim on us is based on the Exodus. By virtue of God’s liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, they became God’s people and God became their God. (Ex. 6:7). God’s authority to command flows directly from the fact that God took the Israelites out of Egypt. (Ex. 20:2)

Meaningfully, the Torah ends before the conquest of the Land. No other historical events will displace the centrality of the Exodus and the covenant at Sinai in the life of Israel.  As Professor Greenberg emphasizes, the Torah ends with Moses’s death because everything central to the relationship between the people and God has now been given. The people’s relationship with God—the Covenant itself—did not depend on Israel’s entrance into the Land. “Israel’s religiosity is its response to the will of Him who granted it freedom and life as an independent people, a response compounded of awe in the presence of such a mighty God, gratitude for His attention to Israel’s need, and loyalty to Him who kept faith with men.” (Understanding Exodus, 7. For Moshe Greenberg’s full discussion see pp. 1-15)

If this notion of religiosity seems difficult, it is. Indeed, the Pew report findings show us that it is very difficult for contemporary Jews to believe in God and to believe in Jewish practice as a language mediating our relationship with the Mystery of the Universe. But the rhythm of the Torah, and its abrupt exclusion of the people’s conquest of the Land, focuses us on the Covenant—our relationship with God—as that which must be central and essential to our Jewish identities. It is no accident that we read these final chapters of the Torah in this season of religious and spiritual reflection; they push us to move past mechanistic and rote behavior of our Jewish lives and aspire for an alive relationship with God—no matter how difficult that may be.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Parashah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).