Judaism’s Greatest Challenge

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Twice in the Torah – once in the sedra of Bechukotai, the second time in today’s sedra – Moses gives voice to a series of prophecies of the sufferings that will befall the Jewish people if they fail to honour their mission as the people of God. They are terrifying passages. To this day we read them so quietly that they are hardly audible. They are each known as tochachah, literally, “remonstration”, and that is how we should understand them.

They are not to be interpreted in the manner of a “fire and brimstone” sermon: do this or else bad things will happen to you. That is not how God or Moses spoke. They did not want the Israelites to pursue their vocation out of fear, but in love. Rather, they are a form of passionate pleading. They represent a future that neither God nor Moses wants to happen. But such is the risk of Israel’s mission – a small people amid mighty empires, a radical faith in the midst of reactionary forces, a commitment to challenge the idols of the age – that bad things will happen if Israel fails to keep to its script. It is as if Israel’s history is like a rocket launch, not a car drive – what might be a minor malfunction were it to occur on earth becomes a major tragedy if it happens in space.

There are many differences between the two tochachot. The first is the reported speech of God, the second the direct speech of Moses. The first is directed to the Israelites as a whole: it uses the second person plural. The second is addressed to individuals as individuals: it speaks in the singular. The first ends on a note of consolation: despite the bad things that will happen, God will not abandon the Jewish people. He will remember his covenant with their ancestors. The Jewish people will survive. The second ends bleakly with no consolation. According to Nachmanides, the first tochachah refers to events surrounding the destruction of the First Temple, whereas the second is about the Second Temple and the sufferings of Jews under the Romans. There is however a further difference – and here one can only be awestruck at the reach of Moses’ prophetic vision.

In Bechukotai, God had spoken of a fundamental breach between Israel and its Redeemer. The language is harsh: “if you reject my decrees and abhor my laws”, “if you continue to be hostile to me.” What is at stake is an active rebellion of the Israelites against God. In Ki Tavo, the language is entirely different. It does not speak of a wilful, petulant nation deliberately spurning God. Indeed it speaks of something that hardly sounds like a sin at all. Why would Israel suffer? “Because you did not serve God your Lord with joy and gladness in the midst of the abundance of all .”

Moses here reaches the climax of the paradoxical message he has communicated throughout his speeches in the book of Devarim. If one were to try to summarise it, it would be this: “For forty years you and your parents wandered in the wilderness. They were hard times, years without a home, when only by a series of miracles did you have anything to eat or drink. Now you have reached the brink of the promised land. You think this will be the end of all your challenges. But it will not be. To the contrary, it is here that the challenge will begin – and it will be the hardest of all because it will not look like a challenge. ‘When you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase, when all you have is multiplied – it is then you must beware lest your heart becomes proud and you forget God your Lord who brought you out of Egypt and the land of slavery.’ ”

With a vision extending beyond the furthest reaches of the horizon, Moses gives voice to the most counter-intuitive message imaginable – and it came true. The greatest challenge is not slavery but freedom; not poverty but affluence; not danger but security; not homelessness but home. The paradox is that when we have most to thank God for, that is when we are in greatest danger of not thanking – nor even thinking of – God at all.

And so it was. Throughout the almost unbearable centuries of exile, the wanderings, expulsions, forced conversions and autos-da-fe, through the ghettos and pogroms, Jews prayed to God, studied His word, kept His commands, handed on His message to their children, and held fast to their identity as Jews with a tenacity awesome in its strength. Jews were a “God-intoxicated” people. It was only when equality beckoned, when society opened its doors, when at last Jews were no longer what Max Weber called a “pariah people,” that they abandoned their faith.

How did Moses know this? The astonishing fact is that he did know it, and now 3,300 years later we know it too. The greatest challenge comes when we are least conscious of the presence of a challenge. Perhaps in this context we can understand the full depth of the first of the priestly blessings: “May God bless you and protect you.” It is when we are most blessed that we are most in need of protection – and the protection for which we pray is that the blessing remain a blessing and not turn into a curse: the curse of forgetting from where the blessings come.

That is the story of our time. When Jews were persecuted, with only a minority of exceptions they stayed Jews. When Jews are not persecuted – when, as now, they have reached the heights of affluence and achievement and have become a “new elite” – Jews are abandoning Judaism in unprecedented numbers. That is the tragedy Moses foresaw in the tochachah in this week’s sedra. It is almost as if Jews need suffering to survive. Indeed so some have argued as they contemplate contemporary Jewry.

It isn’t so – so Moses pleads with all the eloquence at his disposal, at times pressing against the very limits of speech. This faith I have communicated to you from heaven, he says, is not a religion of tragedy, a melody scored in the minor key, a story written in tears, a lament. It is a celebration of life. Time and again he emphasises: “These are the commands you shall do and live by them.” “All of you who hold fast to God are alive today.” “See I have set before you the blessing and the curse, life and death, therefore choose life.”

The Sages said that a Nazirite is called a sinner because he renounces a pleasure that he might have legitimately enjoyed. “If the Nazirite who only abstained from wine is in need of an atonement, how much more so one who deprives himself of other permitted enjoyments.” Maimonides writes: “No one should, by vows and oaths, rule out for himself the use of permitted things. Our Sages say, ‘Are the prohibitions of the Torah not enough for you, that you add others for yourself?’ They included in this those who make a practice of fasting. They too are not walking in the right way. Our Sages prohibited self-mortification by fasting. Concerning this and similar excesses, Solomon said, ‘Be not over-righteous nor excessively wise. Why should you be desolate?’ Kohelet 7:16”

This is not marginal to Judaism but of its essence. The Torah begins by God bringing a universe into being and “seeing that it is good.” Indeed at the end of creation “God saw all that he had made and behold it was very good” – which R. Samson Raphael Hirsch reads as meaning, good in its constituent parts, very good in the relationship of those parts. God is found in the goodness of the world, not in its pain.

This was and is anything but self-evident in the history of the human spirit. Eastern mysticisms teach the individual to rise above the sufferings and vicissitudes of the world into a private nirvana of the soul. Several ancient philosophies, such as Manichaeism and Gnosticism, held that the physical world was created by an evil force, and that finding the true God means abandoning the world. The natural response to such a way of seeing reality is asceticism, the principled denial of pleasure. At the opposite extreme philosophers like Epicurus (from whom rabbinic Hebrew derived its word for “heretic”, epikoros) argued that since the only reality is material, one should devote oneself in this life (there was, he believed, no after-life) to the principled pursuit of pleasure. These views have appealed to great numbers of people throughout history. The Jewish view by contrast is rare, if not unique.

God is to be found in life. His blessings are material as well as spiritual – good crops, fine harvests, a land of plenty and a politics of peace. The God of revelation and redemption is also the God of creation – meaning that to be close to God is to go with, not against, the grain of nature. That is not to say that Judaism is hedonism: quite the contrary.

Asceticism is the denial of pleasure, hedonism is the worship of it. Judaism rejects both and instead invites us to sanctify pleasure: food, by the laws of kashrut and pronouncing blessings over enjoyment; drink through Kiddush at sacred times; sex through the disciplines of marriage and tehorat hamishpacha. To be a Jew is to celebrate life, to see God in life, and to make a blessing over life. It is to find joy in family and community; to find meaning through constant study of Torah; and to share one’s blessings with others. Even the famous Jewish sense of humour is part of this attachment to the fundamental goodness of life, for whatever else it is, humour is a way of laughing at what otherwise would make us weep.

It is precisely this capacity to sanctify pleasure by enjoying it in and through the disciplines of kedushah (sanctification) that has made Judaism immune to the one tendency that has destroyed other civilisations, namely affluence as a prelude to decadence. In Judaism pleasure is never mere pleasure, because, firstly it is dedicated to God; second, it is shared with others; third because it is seen as God’s blessing, not something we made ourselves.

This is anything but an academic point. It is no exaggeration to say that the very future of Judaism and the Jewish people depend on it. What a tragedy it would be – Moses seems to be saying throughout Devarim – if you came through the trials and torments of Egyptian slavery, the long years of wandering through the desert, and the battle to establish yourselves as a nation in your land, if having come this far you lost your way within sight of the destination. How can it be that when you have everything to thank God for, you forget to thank him?

There is a rabbinic aphorism that “God creates the remedy before the disease.” Prior to the tochachah, Moses outlines the law of first-fruits, to be brought in a celebratory manner, to the Temple. In a moving ritual, each Israelite was to make a personal declaration of faith in the presence of God in history, “My father was a wandering Aramean . . .” – the passage that today forms the centrepiece of the Haggadah on Pesach. The Torah then concludes the section on first-fruits with the following words:

And you and the Levites and the strangers among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household.

Judaism is a religion of rejoicing; of remembering where we came from, and therefore not taking our blessings for granted; of recalling the source of the good, and therefore not forgetting the larger truth that it comes to us from the hand of G0d; of knowing that what we have, God has placed in our trust, to be used for the good of all, not just ourselves. I know of no more sane, wise way of seeing reality steadily and seeing it whole.

The beauty of Judaism is that it did not become traumatised by tragedy. Jews, despite their suffering, did not let themselves become defined by it. What Salo Baron called the “lachrymose theory” of Jewish history – seeing it as a succession of martyrdoms – never became the Jewish mainstream. Jews mourned on Tisha B’Av and the other specified fasts but did not allow their other days to be darkened by grief. They set limits to sadness. During the rest of the week they might be toiling, but on Shabbat they ate as if at the royal table. During the rest of the year they might be in exile but on festivals they rejoiced. It is that central affirmation of God as life, and therefore of finding God in the midst of the blessings of life, that we must not lose. For Moses, more than three millennia ago, understood our contemporary situation better than we understand it ourselves.

When affluence leads to forgetfulness, and prosperity to religious indifference, we are in the midst of Judaism’s greatest challenge: to make a blessing over life, turning pleasure into joy, material satisfactions into spiritual affirmations.

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