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D'var Torah: D'varim

Well, I’ve saved the best for the last as we once more come round to reading Devarim/Deuteronomy. It’s downhill all the way to Simchat Torah, where we finish the reading of Devarim and once again begin the reading of Bereshit.

The person who does the last reading is called Chatam Torah, literally, “One who seals the Torah reading” for the year. The word is the same one we use in Yom Kippur, when we say, “chatima tovah,” “May you have a good sealing (in the Book of Life).” Over the years, this phrase slithered into Chatan Torah, “The Bridegroom of the Torah, and, from there, we got Chatan Bereshit, “The Bridegroom of Genesis.” As Steve Rayburn of our Thursday night, “Taking Home the Torah” group demonstrated, the whole thing is lovely, but utterly and completely wrong.

The most important thing you need to know about Devarim is that it is not simply a rewind of what has gone before. The very style and words frequently differ from the earlier accounts. We know this from singing Lecha dodi in Kabbalat Shabbat. That first word is from Deut. 5:12: guard/keep/observe the Shabbat. The second word is from Exodus 20:8: remember the Sabbath day.

Volumes have been written about guard/keep/observe versus remember. In fact, there is a great deal at stake here. Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, one of the leaders of the mystics at Safed/Tzvat in the 16th century, is best known for composing the Lecha Dodi. He was a kabbalist, and he wrote the Lecha Dodi in accordance with the kabbalistic belief that, during the week, each one of a Jew's actions creates an angel.1

So what?

The “So what?” is that he is trying to paper over a chasm which splits our very understanding of how the TaNaKh came to be. To my Orthodox friends, the TaNaKh is one seamless book. When we lift up the Torah and sing, as we sang earlier, “This is the Torah which Moses placed before the Children of Israel at the command of God by the hand of Moses” [my translation]. They mean this Torah which you see in front of you: every word, every letter, every space. Any inconsistencies are only apparent, not real, and they can be explained by careful examination of the text. Theirs is absolutely the traditional way to explain Torah over the past two millennia, and I would never criticize them for this.

The problem for the rest of is that you can’t even open Devarim before you fall off a cliff, as we did Thursday night in the ”Taking Home the Torah” class. “…on the other side of the Jordan.”  What is “the other side?” It’s got to be the side on which the speaker is not standing. If you sort this out, it means that the speaker is standing on the west side of the Jordan, toward the Mediterranean, and Moses is standing in the east side of the Jordan, which he never gets to cross.

Yes, there is a traditional explanation, one in which Moses foresees what the future will look like, once the Children of Israel have crossed the river. But this and a myriad of other conflicts led to the rise, more than a century ago, of what we call the Documentary Hypothesis.2 Since exploring this is a full semester’s work at first-rate university, I obviously cannot do it justice today. Let me just say that the theory has changed and grown over the last century due to the work of distinguished Jewish and Christian scholars including linguists, archaeologists, text analysts, historians, and people in many other specialties.

Very broadly, we see four of five large strands of writing on the TaNaKh, each with its own terms for God, the People Israel, the rules and laws which Jews are called on to obey, and so on.

  1. J-strand: use the word yod-heh-vav-hey for the name of God and gets its name via the German scholars who transliterated yod as the sound J, giving us Je-ho-vah
  2. E-strand: uses the word elokim for the name of God.
  3. P-strand: the priestly writings including most if Leviticus/vayikra.
  4. D-strand: the Deuteronomist, who wrote not only Devarim but big chunks of Joshua, Kings and so on. Even here, I am oversimplifying, because the D-strand likely is a school of writers.
  5. H-strand; written by some scholars, possibly. This is the Holiness Code in Leviticus/Vayikra 17-26 or 273

And then there’s the mysterious R: the redactor, who pulled all of these writings together into the canonical TaNaKh, possibly around 450 BCE.

Let me sum all of this up in one word. That word is ... OY!

Do we have a seamless Holy Book with the Word of God to guide us, or do we have a collection or myths and stories no different from those of the surrounding peoples such as the Canaanites, the Babylonians, the Jebusites, the Akkadians, the Stalagmites, the Stalactites, and so on with whom they lived? The one book which you must read is  How to Read the Bible4 by James Kugel. Professor Kugel is an Orthodox Jew who taught an immensely popular course at Harvard for decades and now lives in Jerusalem. He is one of the most prolific and most highly esteemed Jewish scholars writing today. His agony and outstanding scholarship is apparent on every page.

...Documentary Hypothesis. J, E, P, H, and D disagree, scholars say, about so many ideas—not just who is a priest, but who God is and how He is to be served. And they disagree as well about dozens of practical issues, including individual laws and their precise wording. They have sharply contrasting views on the giving of the Torah—not only on the name of the mountain (Sinai or Horeb), but on what the people saw or did not see, heard or did not hear. This, therefore, is the central question raised by the Documentary Hypothesis today; can any of this be thought to be Scripture, when so much of it reflects human disputes between different writers and their schools? Where is the word of God in a book that contradicts itself on so many different, and fundamental items?5

I won’t tell you how Kugel attempts to answer this. Go read his book! But I am going to conclude with my own perspective, which is different from all of these. I have exhaustively searched our sacred texts without finding any credible source that Mosheh Rebbeinu had an iPhone, let alone a Dell desktop. The technological gulf which separates us from our religious ancestors is utterly beyond stating. But I also bring to bear my perspective as an evolutionist. As some of you may know, my colleagues and I edited concordances to several of Darwin’s books. I’ve taught courses on evolution. I’ve debated the creationists and am on the board of Michigan Citizens for Science, which fights creationist attempts to sneak their way into your children’s science curriculum. I think I can say with absolute confidence that there are no significant evolutionary differences between us and our Jewish forbearers of a mere couple of millennia ago.

The questions they asked are our questions, and we study their answers to try construct meaning in our lives.

These are the questions with which our ancestors challenge us.

Ben Bag-Bag used to say of the Torah: Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it. Pore over it, and wax gray and old over it. Stir not from it for you can have no better rule than it. (Pirkei Avot 5:256.)

Shabbat shalom.

—Don Weinshank
August 2011






5. James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, Free Press, 2008, p. 316.


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