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Deuteronomy: Missing From Jewish Curricula For Too Long

August 1, 2014

The annual summer vacation is in full swing right now, and it is this book’s constant misfortune that it is not studied by young Jews of all ages. In the industrialized world, Jewish day schools broke for summer weeks ago, and at the Yeshivoth Gedoloth, the institutions of higher Jewish learning, which do not do enough to study either the weekly parasha or any books of the Bible in a satisfactory manner, there’s also a break at this time. The result: observant Jewish people are not sufficiently familiar with both the details of the commandments in Deuteronomy and the big-picture themes of the book.

I feel compelled to jot down a few words for those adults out there who want to begin to catch up.

* This book is Moses’s farewell address to the people, and therefore its style is different from that of the preceding books. Bible critics noted this stylistic difference as though they had discovered America, and a whole school of misinformation was borne of their endeavors to try to find support for their various theses within Deuteronomy’s verses. The greatest flaw in their whole system is that they take the later prophets at face value: Isaiah and company lived when they did and wrote their books when they did, and therefore the themes of Deuteronomy were borrowed from them. Why not take Deuteronomy at face value and say that the later prophets were the ones who were influenced? The sages and rishonim actually learned a lot of kosher Torah from Deuteronomy’s nuances.

* Deuteronomy is a microcosm of the Torah, and likewise features a microcosm of Jewish history. The book opens with an explanation of past history and closes with future history.

If you read the book cover to cover, here the is the running theme:

God chose the Jewish people and gave them the land of Israel. In more elaborate, human terms, this means that: the Jews were given special commandments by which they were to spread the knowledge of God throughout the world through the repuidation of everything idolatrous, and they were to be headquartered in the land of Israel. They were to go to the land of Israel, conquer it, drive out the wicked inhabitants, and then settle it. They were then to found a society dedicated to the ideals of the Torah.

However, aside from the usual (evil) inclinations toward selfish sinning, usually by lusting after the usual pleasures like food, money, and sex, there were two especially destructive tendencies found among the Jews, tendencies that threatened to destroy the very foundation of Jewish society: the lack of desire and faith necessary to take God’s promise of the land seriously and actually go to the holy land, and the urge to ascribe power to any entity, real or imagined, that was not God. These two proclivities were manifested by the generation that left Egypt, specifically when the vast majority of them voiced their support for a campaign to return to Egypt at the behest of the scouts they had sent to Canaan, and when they built the Golden Calf. They should have had greater faith and loyalty to God, Who 1. took them out of Egypt in a supremely miraculous fashion and could therefore bring them to the Promised Land in a similar manner, and 2. Who had appeared to all of them at the Sea and Sinai, and had shown them that He alone was God, i.e., did not share His control of the world with any other being.

The next generation learned these lessons well, and they succeeded in ultimately settling the land.

The rest of Jewish history, and by that I mean the fate of every individual generation, would be determined by 1. what state it found itself in because of the deeds of the previous generation, and 2. how well it dealt with its own tests, mostly having to do with one of these tendencies:

Generations that found themselves in the land of Israel were to maintain societies free of idolatry and its daughter ideologies. Backsliding into idolatry would lead to destruction of that society and to exile. From the time when the land was first conquered until the destruction of the First Temple, the idolatry they practiced was essentially pagan. They worshipped demons and idols, and ascribed strange attributes to God Himself. During the era of the Second Temple, the old idolatry had been destroyed, but its philosophical descendants persisted. Although the sages said the Second Temple was destroyed for the sin of baseless hatred, that only explains why they were deserving of the hurban. The fall of their whole commonwealth was attributable, according to Maimonides, to their reliance on religious ritual to deal with political and military necessities, instead of actually dealing with them using normal means, e.g. by trying to fight wars by literally reading Psalms and offering sacrifices, instead of first praying and fasting and then actually doing their best to fight fiercely. (This idolatrous belief persists today among growing segments of the Orthodox.) Today, the mainstream secularists and leftists have a new idolatry. Although they profess atheism, their belief that somehow surrendering territory, weapons, and resources to our sworn enemies will somehow allow us to live in peace with them is nothing less than straight, blind faith in the imaginary. (They may accuse us of having irrational faith, but as we have written earlier, the policies prescribed by the Torah would have been derived through logic had they not been dictated, and every normal country subscribes to them. We specifically needed to be commanded concerning them because our compassionate nature would guide us away from them.) Tzippi Livni and Isaac Herzog may profess some affinity to Jewish tradition, and Yair Lapid may claim not to believe in anything, but the truth is that they are unfortunately more committed to their religious beliefs than most observant Jews are to theirs.

Generations that find themselves in exile need to 1. Abandon the idolatrous beliefs that caused them to be exiled, as the Jews did during the Babylonian captivity, and 2. make their way back to the land of their fathers and attempt to once again establish a Torah state therein. The generation of the Exodus failed in this regard, and the prophets and sages faulted the Jews of the Diaspora for this during the construction of the Second Temple and for centuries afterward. In the last two centuries, this was the deciding factor in Jewish survival. Those who came to settle the land of Israel, whether religious or secular, lived and thrived, and those who stayed in exile were either for the most part assimilated, like in the New World, or were incinerated, like in Europe. As has been mentioned, in an idolatrously ironic twist, this tendency has been declared to be the fulfillment of a commandment, whereas the settlement of the land to be a sin, by none other than some of the greatest scholars among the Jews.

Thus, the inclination toward idolatry is the single greatest destructive influence on Jewish society within the holy land, and the inclination toward remaining in exile is the single greatest destructive influence on Jewish society without. Both must be overcome in equal measure for us to succeed in our mission of sanctifying God’s name. This is the message conveyed by the book of Deuteronomy.

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