Friday, April 06, 2007

Finding A Chosen Place

Any Jew aware of their Judaism finds themselves asking the question: “What should my relationship with Jewish tradition be?” While we spend time weighing the merits of various practices or observances, it often feels like tradition fails to acknowledge the reality that we are independent agents: that we are ultimately making a choice about how we engage with our Judaism. Popularly conceived, Judaism flatly tramples our individuality and asserts, “Your path is already chosen for you, accept it”! Does tradition itself concede any flexibility as to how I personally engage with it? Can tradition acknowledge that the way in which I relate to and practice my Judaism will be a result of the unique choices I make as an individual, rather than something that has simply been chosen for me? This Dvar Torah is an argument for conceiving of our relationship with tradition and God as just that, a relationship. It is an argument for finding a chosen place[1].

The book of Deuteronomy speaks to the wilderness generation, the generation that arose during the desert wanderings and is preparing to complete its spiritual journey through the conquest of the land of Canaan. The Israelites are instructed that, once the land is conquered, their spiritual centre is to be a special place that the deity will choose,

…[you shall go] to the place that the Lord your God will choose from [amongst] all your tribal territories to establish his presence; you shall seek out his dwelling place and go there[2]. (Deut 12.5)

The fact that the location of this ‘chosen place’ is not mentioned is often glossed over: the temple was later built in Jerusalem, and the book of Chronicles (a much later Second Temple period composition) identifies the precise mountain on which it was built as being Mt. Moriah (2 Chron 3.1). There is great significance to this identification, for Genesis tells us that Abraham was commanded to offer Issac in ‘the land of Moriah…on one of the mountains that I will show you’ (Gen 22.2). The fact that Deuteronomy chooses to say none of this, however, is often ignored.

Why are the Israelites told to go somewhere, without being told where to go? Why is their spiritual destination, at the end of all their long desert wanderings, kept hidden from them?[3] Our verse recognises this tension: ‘[you shall go] to the place that…God will choose…you shall seek out his dwelling place’. If the place is already chosen by God, why do the Israelites need to seek it out? The Sifre, a tannaitic halakhic Midrash, notes this difficulty and responds,

You might think you must wait until a prophet tells you [where it is]; hence the verse continues ‘seek out his dwelling’; search for and find the place, then the prophet will tell you. (Sifre Deuteronomy Pisqa 62)

The Israelites should not wait for God to tell them where the place he has chosen is, rather, they must seek it out and find it by themselves. Once they have found it, it is the function of the prophet to ‘tell them’. What this means remains unclear. It may mean that this becomes a game of divine ‘hide and seek’, the prophet telling them whether they ‘got it right or not’. However, it seems more likely that the prophet role is to simply put the divine stamp of approval on their endeavours. The divinely ‘chosen’ place is ‘chosen’ by Israel.

The problem of chosenness seems to be one that is almost unique to Deuteronomy. Of the twenty occurrences of the phrase ‘x that the Lord will choose’ (asher yibhar Hashem) in the Torah, nineteen of them occur in the book of Deuteronomy. While most of these – fully eighteen of them – concern the chosen place, one of them concerns the king. Surprisingly, we here find an almost identical problem regarding the indeterminate divine-human nature of the process by which the king is ‘chosen’. The verse states,

You shall surely place a king over yourselves who the Lord your God shall choose; you shall place one of your brethren over yourselves as king, you may not place over yourselves a foreigner who is not of your brethren. (Deut 17.15)

Here we have the same problem: If the king is chosen by God, why the injunction to make someone king? Why the detailed instructions as to who qualifies and who does not? Nahmanides’ comment on this point (ad. loc.) is truly startling,

In my opinion the simple meaning of the expression ‘whom He will choose’ is that every ruler over people receives his position from God, as it is written ‘until you will know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomsoever he will’ (Daniel 4.29). Similarly the Rabbis have said: ‘Even a superintendent of the well is appointed in heaven’ (BT Berakhot 58a). Thus the verse is stating: You shall surely place a king over yourselves – whoever is decreed by Heaven that he is to reign…– but you are never to invest a foreigner with regal power. Similarly…the expression ‘the place that the Lord your God will choose’ (Deut 12.5) means that wherever God’s sanctuary shall be built, was all the will of God[4].

Nahmanides here asserts the ‘divine right of kings’: however the king becomes king and however the temple site comes to be chosen, all of these things are expressions of the will and workings of the Deity in human affairs. Again, we see that the divine ‘chosen place’ is ‘chosen’ by Israel, but in this case, the human choice requires no direct divine seal of approval.

We mentioned earlier that the book of Chronicles identifies the mountain on which the temple was built as being the same mountain on which the Binding of Isaac occurred. The nature and purpose of this identification is rarely examined. Does the book of Chronicles simply intend to provide us with geographical information? It seems more likely that Chronicles was making a profound exegetical link between the two episodes. We noted earlier that the Israelites were being sent to a seemingly precise destination without being told where to go. This occurs explicitly in two other instances in the bible
[5]. The first occurs when Abram is first spoken to by God, “Leave (lekh lekha) your land, your birthplace and your father’s house for the land that I will show you” (Gen 12.1). The second occurs with the ‘Binding of Isaac’, where Abraham is told “…go (lekh lekha) to the land of Moriah and offer him up there as an elevation offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you” (Gen 22.2).

This is not the only link between the ‘chosen place’ and the ‘Binding of Isaac’. After the ‘Binding of Isaac’ episode we are told, ‘Abraham called that place “The Lord Will See”’. The voice of the narrator then reminds us of a common saying, ‘of which it is said today, “on the Mountain of the Lord, He [the Lord] will be seen”’ (Gen 22.14). Here we find an identical dialectic to that which we found earlier, namely: Does the sanctity of the place stem from God’s ‘seeing’ of the place, or of the people’s ‘seeing’ of the godly in that place? Here too, the godly path is the one that finds favour, both in the eyes of God and in the eyes of man.

We stand at a crossroads with many paths available to us. Each path is meticulously signposted, with the destination and distance clearly marked. But these are paths that have already been trodden by others, meticulously plotted and mapped. Sometimes these will take us where we want to go; sometimes they will simply force us into living the lives of others. Often we will need to cut our own path through the undergrowth, and we won’t know where it will take us; we will need to have faith in ourselves and in our own convictions. This kind of journey is a negotiation between ourselves and the terrain that is offered to us; our end destination will be the result of dialogue and compromise. It will be both the destination-place we have chosen, and also that which has been chosen for us. We will have found a chosen place.

A person is more satisfied with one measure of his own [handiwork] than with nine of his fellow’s. (BT Baba Mezia 38a) [6]



[1] This Dvar Torah is significantly indebted to another Dvar Torah by Rabbi David Dov Levanon, entitled ‘Jerusalem – Seek Her Out and Find Her’. He takes a similar, though not identical, set of sources in a completely different direction.

[2] Biblical translations are my own. The structure of the sentence makes it difficult to express clearly in English.

[3] The source critical stance enhances the weight of the question. If centralisation was in Deuteronomy’s mind, why not solve the problem once and for all?

[4] Chavel, modified

[5] There is no concordance for this kind of assertion. If I am wrong, please tell me.

[6] Rashi asks why Abraham, in his initial encounter with God (Gen 12.1), is not told of his destination. One of his answers is that this was in order to make it ‘beloved’ to him. The talmudic statement quoted above ‘A person is more satisfied with one measure of his own [handiwork] than with nine of his fellow’s’ (BT Baba Mezia 38a) can be used to explain what Rashi means. In his commentary on the Talmud he remarks on this point: ‘It is beloved to him because he has toiled for it’.

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Anonymous Tikva said...

Tikva wrote (on facebook)
at 4:23pm on April 6th, 2007

no no, there is no subversive subtext. it's just subversive text.

2:08 am  
Anonymous Sammy said...

Samuel wrote (on facebook)
at 4:28pm on April 6th, 2007

"in Deuteronomy's mind"?


2:09 am  
Anonymous philip said...

Philip wrote (on facebook)
at 5:32pm on April 6th, 2007

My reading of the Devar Torah suggested a confused use of appeal to authority.
You seem to be using the Torah's text to justify independent choice, but one of the major elements of subversion here is that the Torah is, justifiably, more often seen as a prescriptive text, in light of all it's legal injunctions, which are backed up by corporeal retaliation against the disobedient.

There are moments of subversion, sanctioned by the text, eg. Moses's successful arguments against haShem in Shemoth 32:11-14 and baMidbar 14:13-20 and Pinhas' zealous over-riding of normal court procedure in baMidbar 25:7-8. But for these incidents, you have the normal procedure, in baMidbar 15:32-36, with the Shabbat-desecrator, as well as all the punishments that the Israelites receive for being wayward.
For someone who wants to choose their way independently, for better or worse, surely the Torah is an impediment. That one has to be subversive to get accross a different message surely proves that point.

2:10 am  
Blogger Adam said...

‘Subversive’ may have been misplaced and was more for rhetorical effect that anything else; all new interpretation is subversive, and this is nothing more than new interpretation.

No religious community can have a viable future without acknowledging its debt to the past and working with the material of that past (e.g. texts) to build its future. If a myth has become implausible, it can only be rectified with a solution that allows plausible continuity with the past. If, in reading religious texts, the reader sees prescription of things that appear to be immoral, the reader must presume that the fault is with the method of reading and not with the text, because (and the presumption must remain) the text is godly: they must find new methods of interpretation that make them not only moral, but reclaim their divinity. (Plain meaning should perhaps be reserved for appropriate contexts e.g. Monday mornings).

Literalistic interpretation spells only the death of the community.

2:11 am  
Anonymous philip said...

Philip Rosenberg wrote (on facebook)
at 2:14am

2 questions:

Why must one presume that the text is godly?

Why must one presume that if a god authored a text, that we should interpret God's morality to be in-line with contemporary moral standpoints, especially if the moral statements are almost impossible to re-interpret with any shred of academic rigour?


11:29 am  
Blogger Adam said...

1) Let me be clear. I am not assuming anything that you wouldn't. I am saying that the community must continue to regard its sacred texts as sacred, otherwise it will no longer exist.

2) This is not about academic rigour. This is about the community and its continuity, I am not referring to the detached scholarship of Monday mornings. It is about keeping a sacred text sacred. If moderns find Judaism's sacred texts implausible, they must be returned to plausibility. By plausible, I mean plausibly in sync with moral mores and average conceptions of divinity. This is primarily a religious exercise. Now, if part of the problem of plausibility stems from academic gripes, then obviously the academic approach also figures. Obviously academic rigour is preferable, but it is not primary.

11:30 am  
Anonymous philip said...

Philip Rosenberg wrote (on facebook)
at 3:38am

Hmm..for those who insist that apparent disparaties can be reconciled, I could understand this approach. But if one thinks that the whole story is full of holes; and that the moral viewpoints were merely where man was at, at the time that man wrote these world-changing texts that's tough.

Putting one's head in the sand is one thing, but when one is fully conscious of the mis-match between text and 'truth', the sand becomes impenetrable concrete and the ostrich is stuck being forced to say things they don't believe.

What about making Judaism post-textual, seeing the Tanakh as a national epic with some neat ideas, but some happily out-dated ones?
In this situation, Judaism could become celebrated as a culture, it could become a post-religious movement, taking all the good of the legacy of religion, but rejecting that which is uncomfortable. What is canonized could still be canonized and used as a starting point of reference, just with a whole set of different starting assumptions.

6:58 am  
Blogger Adam said...

This isn't 'head in the sand', it is being pragmatic! Religion (esp. J) isn't about belief! No community can be post-textual, it adapts or dies. The history of J hermeneutics shows the only limit to interpretation is acceptance. Rejection happens QUIETLY as certain voices are sidelined and others resurected/innovated. Such has always been our way.

Same argument as always: 'post-religious' & 'secular' just sound like an uncritical acceptance of fundamentalist definitions of religion. Religious experience is far broader than the simple dichotomies of observance/non-observance or belief/lack of belief. For the vast majority of people 'religion' refers to their philosophy of life, system of ethics, system of life-organisation by way of ritual, their inner life, their 'spiritual' life and so on. I.e. I don't think a person can be non-religious or can 'escape' religion. It's the stuff that life is made of.

I.e. I would still characterise your conception of religion as Haredi ;)

6:58 am  
Anonymous tamar said...

Tamar wrote (on facebook)
at 12:41pm

"Rejecting that which is uncomfortable" is about as far from haredi as I can imagine, Adam. What are you talking about?

Phil, you know I adore you, but I think Adam's point is pretty well supported. Your theory sounds a bit too much like, "Keeping shabbos is a drag, but I still like mum's kugel." Which is all fine and good, but it's hard to deny that robbing the Bible of its morality, making it instead into a cultural artifact is ignoring a lot of what has always been the point of Judaism. Adam seems to be arguing that the compass stays the same, but the route changes, and you seem to be saying, we should frame the map and put it on the wall as a nice conversation piece.

It's a messy business, being observant, and I think people who want to reduce Judaism to a culture are trying to clean it up without rolling up their sleeves.

6:59 am  
Blogger Adam said...

I didn't say that Phil was Haredi, I said that one could characterise his conception of religion as as Haredi. Phil seems to define religion as believing correctly and observing correctly, therefore, anyone who doesn't do these things cannot be 'religious'. I am arguing that this is simply accepting an incorrect fundamentalist definition of what being 'religious' means. The correct definition is much broader. See above.

7:00 am  
Anonymous philip said...

Philip wrote (on facebook)
at 2:54pm

No offence taken.

I’ve said similar before, but I’ll say it again: Tamar, your writing-style is beyond brilliant.

You guys have got me pretty well pegged. I am a fundamentalist.

I cannot understand how people reach moderate conclusions on religious faith. If one’s position is that there might be a God; that the Torah might be written by said possible God (or the equally vague ‘influenced by God’ position), if there is a chance that Rabbinic Judaism shares that divine influence and if it is mere speculation that a Rabbi is qualified to instruct one how to live their life, then what kind of coherent, religious action can follow?

Within this configuration, one is entirely free to choose what to accept and reject in terms of religious practice, which is really no different from secularism in consequence, apart from the religious person being able to ‘free-load’ (for want of a kinder term) spirituality and assurances of divine justice and mercy.

Fundamentalism is a bit too beautifully simple, but it is coherent. I love the image about cultural Jews not wanting to get their hands dirty with the messy, grey areas of religion, but why should they, or how can they? Can that position be intellectually justified?

I do not say that the Bible, or any Jewish text, is a mere cultural artefact. I think that cultural Jews should seriously engage with the moral messages of the texts of our ancient and more recent ancestors, but they have the freedom, within the secular model, reject out of hand anything that does not tally with modern, rational morality.

5:10 am  

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