Introducing Deuteronomy: A distinctive Jewish voice

by | Aug 18, 2015 | Torah Thought

We are now near the beginning of our annual rereading of Sefer Devarim, the Book of Deuteronomy. Engaged Jews agree that the Bible presents a clear and distinct message: that there is One God, Creator of all, Who reaches out to all of us, and Who has become known to our people, Israel, throughout the course of our unique history. As Jews, we know God from our Bible as the One Who has rescued us from Egyptian slavery, given us a covenant and taken us to our Promised Land.

But there is a difference between unity and uniformity. The Thirteen Colonies could unite in their resolve to cast off the rule of King George III , but they were clearly not unanimous with respect to the new country or countries they wished to erect.

Deuteronomy is an integral part of the Chumash. But are its teachings unanimous with those of the other four of the Five Books of Moses? On this point, Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish scholars disagree. Non-Orthodox readers point to many distinct messages seen only in Deuteronomy, not in the first four books. Orthodox readers devote great ingenuity to harmonizing those messages with the other books’ teachings.

I respect the intellectual effort to defend the sanctity of the Bible. But in my world view, seeing the distinctness of Deuteronomy is not an attack on the holiness of Scripture. God spoke to many prophets, and each reported the message in his or her own distinct voice. To hear this kind of distinctness in the various subsections of the Chumash only reminds me that the Chumash is like the other parts of the Bible, with every voice in the choir worthy of being heard distinctly.

In Deuteronomy, and only in Deuteronomy (chapter 12), we are commanded to bring our sacrifices not on any high hill or under any resplendent tree, but only at one divinely chosen place. Six centuries after Moses, during the reign of King Josiah, we achieved this centralization of worship in Jerusalem. Jews have a worldwide capital, Jerusalem, and Deuteronomy is the first Biblical source pointing to that crucial reality. In Deuteronomy, we hear a persistent humanitarian voice, often reinterpreting laws that we had first heard elsewhere. To cite just a few of many examples of this: Exodus (chapter 20) tells us to rest on the Sabbath, and so does Deuteronomy (chapter 5). But the Exodus passage explains resting on the Sabbath as a way to emulate God, Who rested on the seventh day of creation. On the other hand, Deuteronomy connects our Sabbath rest to the liberation from slavery in Egypt, and makes it more explicit that the purpose of the day of rest is to allow our male and female servants to rest along with the more fortunate among us.

Again, Exodus 21 allows the institution of indentured servitude, reforming the practice of other ancient nations to preserve the life and limb of the servant. But it envisions that the servant will leave after six years, no further payment being given by the owner. In Deuteronomy 15, however, the owner is admonished, “Do not let him go empty. Furnish him liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress.…”

It is in Deuteronomy, and not elsewhere, that we learn of the dignity of the impoverished borrower. The lender may not go into his home to take the collateral, but must allow the borrower to keep the dignity of his private quarters, and to bring the pledge out to the lender (Deuteronomy 24:10-11).

I see this humanitarianism as a clear and beautiful development within Judaism during the many centuries of the Biblical era. What so many of us prize about our religion achieved its distinctive voice for the first time in Deuteronomy. To encounter the first flowering of this characteristically Jewish world-view is inspiring.

—Rabbi Michael Panitz, Temple Israel