Deuteronomy is presented as Moses’ final proclamation. In this week’s portion, the Torah narrative records Moses teaching the laws of Sinai to the generation born in the wilderness following the Exodus.
Contemporary scholars generally agree that the core of what we know as Deuteronomy correlates with a story found in the book of II Kings, chapters 22 and 23. There, King Josiah, the monarch reigning in Judea circa 621 BCE, orders repairs on the Temple in Jerusalem. During the repairs a scroll is “discovered.” That scroll is assumed by modern scholars to be similar to or even identical with the core of Deuteronomy.
In this week’s portion we find some extremely harsh strictures regarding the native population of the land of Canaan: “You must destroy all the sites of the nations you are to dispossess where they worshiped their gods…. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods….” (Deuteronomy 12:2-3)
Although the Torah presents this as in the time of Moses, if we correlate it instead with the seventh pre-Christian century, the imprecation becomes clearer. Josiah was a reforming monarch, assuming the throne after several syncretistic sovereigns who were not reluctant to blend Israelite and pagan worship.
The prophets of that time, notably Jeremiah, were militant in their opposition to these deviant practices. In Josiah, the reformist party found its patron, and he is remembered for carrying out exactly the type of destruction suggested in this week’s portion (see II Kings 23).
Traditional Jewish forms of interpretation would probably suggest that Deuteronomy’s proscriptions applied only to pagan worship. Since the Middle Ages, Jewish authorities have not considered Christianity and Islam to be “idolatrous” — but this begs the question.
Of greater significance is an underlying attitude that guided the deuteronomic writers. Within their proscriptions against paganism is an assumption that, left to their own devices, the Israelites will be unable to resist the appeal of other gods. Unless the temptation is removed, the risk remains that assimilation will encroach on Israelite identity. (The priestly writers within the Torah often take a related but distinct view that paganism pollutes the very Land of Israel and thus renders it unfit for the habitation of God.)
While some try to do so, it is anachronistic to apply the words of Deuteronomy either to contemporary Israeli or North American Jewish life. There are those who, for example, favor the morally problematic “population transfer” of Palestinians out of Israel as a viable approach, using the words of this week’s portion, to support a radical and ethically impaired proposal. Similarly, there are those who find the open culture of North America to be a seductive snare designed to lure observant Jews away from fidelity to Jewish tradition. They forbid access to public education, television, the Internet, or any non-sanctioned travel outside of observant enclaves, lest people be exposed to things that can “lead them astray.”
In both cases, the assumptions that Jewish identity can be maintained only in isolation, that anything outside of exposure to Judaism will be an enticement, and that both Jews and Judaism are under siege from potential exposure to outside interests and influences remain the concern of a few but irrelevant to the majority of contemporary Jews.
The majority of contemporary Jews have long accepted the blessings of living in open societies, and have continually sought to adapt Jewish identity and tradition so that it is not a choice of “either/or” but “both/and.” While the various religious streams, Zionist ideologies, and cultural and secular forms of Judaism may have offered different programs to maintain this balance, each shares the assumption that a choice between Judaism and everything else need not be made — a stark contrast to this week’s Torah reading.
Deuteronomy’s angry assumption that other faiths are de facto threats to Judaism is no longer a compelling message, not least in response to the rise in the rate of intermarriage. Jews married to non-Jews understandably do not find it hard to see their in-laws as pagan idolaters needing to be eradicated, nor do they see the various faith traditions they may represent as corrosive of Jewish identity.
Contemporary Jewish identity is not so insecure that it can only be built on opposition and avoidance of “the Other.” At our best, we choose to engage with other cultures and faiths in discussion and dialogue, which enriches and enhances our shared humanity. We are in fact a community striving to understand ourselves better through the very kinds of interactions that constitute the blessings of Judaism under freedom, a Judaism that our deuteronomic ancestors could not have anticipated, let alone imagined.