Rabbi Dr Andrew Goldstein – 22nd July 2020
In many a pub quiz if the question is asked: “where do we find Deuteronomy?” Most would answer “in Cats ”. True, Deuteronomy is one the felines in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical based on the poems by T.S. Eliot. In Eliot’s poem Old Deuteronomy is characterised as an ancient, wise cat who has “lived many lives in succession”. Fortunately my readers will know Deuteronomy as the fifth book of the Torah….certainly ancient and full of wisdom and full of interest every time we read it. And there are a number aspects about it that make it particularly relevant to Liberal Jews living in this period of isolation and lockdown because of the Covid-19 virus.
In other books in the Torah, we get used to: ”Va-yedaber Adonai… God spoke.” But Deuteronomy opens with “Eyleh ha-devarim asher diber Moshe…these are the words that Moses spoke”. The book is presented as Moses reminding the people of all that God had told him up to date. And surely this is how Liberal Jews view the Torah…it contains words of our ancient leaders, human beings, inspired by God. And it invites us, in each generation, to examine the words of Torah and give them a new life to make them meaningful in our lives.
The book opens by setting the scene: Moses speaking at the end of the forty years of wandering in the wilderness. But most modern scholars agree that the probable setting for the creation of the book is during the time of King Josiah (649-608 B.C.E.), who enacted a major reform of Jewish worship and belief. It led to a radical examination of practices that had crept into the religious life of the people and the most striking change was in the abolition of local sanctuaries and shrines. In future, sacrifices could only be made in one place – Jerusalem. Imagine how this must have affected established religious life. Overnight all local places of worship were closed, traditional rituals no longer able to take place. Surely we have experienced just such a situation these past few months as Covid-19 has forced the closure of our synagogues. It could have led to a massive loss of faith and connection to our religious life and our congregations. But just as new emphases’ developed post Josiah reforms, just as Liberal Judaism re-invented the focus of our Judaism 120 years ago, so we have re-invented the way we go about synagogue life. And far more people have “attended” regular services on-line than ever set foot into the synagogue building. In these difficult times, a connection to our religion has obviously given comfort to so many.
An effect of Josiah’s reforms, with local sanctuaries closed and not everybody able to travel to Jerusalem, must have led to religious life finding a new centre – in the home. This has happened to us with people watching services from their living room. And in Deuteronomy we find verses that led to the development of key rituals that have preserved Jewish identity over the ages: mezuzah, tallit, and tefillin. The Shema and verses that led to Kiddush on Shabbat and the Grace after Meals. We are fortunate that over the ages Judaism has developed two religious centres: the synagogue and the home. And these past few weeks we have been able to use the magic of Zoom to combine the two.
Finally, it is in Deuteronomy that we find a new focus on social care and justice; just as this is a feature and demand of Liberal Judaism. Throughout the book we get reminders of our need to look after the vulnerable in our society: “the poor, the orphan, the widow and the stranger”. And this Biblical command has been so relevant during the period of lockdown and economic hardship.
So, welcome to Deuteronomy: full of ancient wisdom and given a new life every year when we read it from the Torah.
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