This morning I delivered a Davar Torah on Parashat Ra’eh, the weekly Torah portion, at Park Slope Jewish Center in Brooklyn. My talk’s sources include Deuteronomy 11:26 -12:28, Max Vogelstein’s book “Fertile Soil: A Political History of Israel Under the Divided Kingdom,” and “A Homily on Political Messianism,” a blog post by my American-Israeli cousin Sam Shube. Here is the text of my Davar Torah:
David Cooper, Davar Torah, Shabbat Re’ah, PSJC 27 Aug 2011
The Haftorot we have been reading for the past three weeks and will continue reading for the next four weeks, the Haftorot of consolation, are retrospective. As we look back at a traumatic event in our national history these selections from the prophets help us make sense of that tragedy, and in an early example of Jewish guilt we blame ourselves. The Torah portions from Sefer D’varim, Deuteronomy, we read during these weeks include both prescriptive and retrospective elements. With hindsight we watch Moses provide the people of Israel final instructions before they cross the Jordon River and take possession of the land.
Our parasha this week, like those in the previous three weeks, includes numerous commandments, as well as rewards and punishments for keeping or failing to keep the commandments. One commandment that is repeated in one form or another several times in the first third of this week’s portion that we read today on the triennial cycle forbids worshiping foreign gods.
Two weeks ago in her Davar Torah, Dale Rosenberg pointed out that Deuteronomy was a “lost” scroll of the Torah that was “found” in the Temple during the reign of King Josiah. Some scholars speculate that Josiah may have been its author, or perhaps he commissioned a priest to write the scroll. For what political policy then did King Josiah intend this book to provide a religious foundation?
Josiah’s reign coincided with the decline and fall of the Assyrian Empire. Yes, the same Assyrian Empire that more than a century earlier had conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and sent its royal family and other elites into exile. With the end of the Assyrian occupation of the north Josiah was able to reunite the entire country from Dan in the north to Beersheva in the south, from northern Galillee to the Negev, for the first time since the death of King Solomon more than half a millennium earlier. As a concession to northern sensibilities Josiah agreed to move the beginning of the year from the autumn to the spring, and in return the northern priests agreed to destroy the altar at Bethel and instead worship at the temple in Jerusalem. Indeed, all local places of worship were to be destroyed and abandoned. Worship was centralized in Jerusalem and remaining pre-Israelite Canaanite rituals were banned outright.
Just as in late fifteenth century Spain, after completing La Reconquista with the capture of Grenada, Ferdinand and Isabella sought to unify the country by expelling its Jews and Muslims, so too Josiah sought to complete the unification of Israel and Judah by obliterating all foreign worship and centralizing authority under a policy of one monarch, one Temple, one God. He may have also been influenced by the southern stereotype of northerners as religiously promiscuous; they were known to play well with other gods.
Josiah’s success or failure can only be judged in retrospect. In an early example of political messianism, Josiah sincerely believed that if he obeyed and enforced the divine commandments no harm would come to him or his realm and he would be rewarded with military triumphs.
In banning foreign worship Josiah was rejecting Solomon’s example of marrying foreign princesses and allowing them to erect places of worship to their foreign gods, choosing to instead pursue a policy of diplomatic isolation and a militarily enforced complete neutrality. The current Israeli government is likewise pursuing policies that increasingly isolate it, relying instead on support of religious minorities both abroad and at home: overseas from American right-wing Evangelicals and domestically from messianic Orthodox Jewish settlers.
Josiah’s intolerant policy of one monarch, one Temple, and one God bears more than a passing resemblance both to contemporary right-wing evangelicals who insist that The United States is a Christian country whose leaders should be like minded members of their own faith who lead Christ-centered lives, and to the religious extremists on both sides of the Israel/Palestine dispute who want to replace the current governments in Jerusalem and Ramallah with a single theocracy that would exclude members of religious communities other than their own. The West Bank settlers and other Jewish political messianists who endanger Israel’s very existence by preventing a two state solution would do well to remember what happened to Josiah, who while enforcing his policy of neutrality was killed by an Egyptian archer in battle at Megiddo.
As my American-Israeli cousin Sam Shube wrote in a recent homilitic blog post: “Israel’s victory in 1967 was the result of effective preparation, rigorous training and outstanding military strategy. It was not a prescription for abandoning geo-strategic considerations and political realities so as to drag an entire country into an ongoing messianic adventure in whose divine certainty only a small minority believe. Retrospective moralism can be an enriching exercise in scriptural interpretation. Prescriptive messianism is a political psychopathology, a dangerous act of intellectual solipsism, which, as Josiah has shown, leads inevitably to a tragic demise.”
After Josiah’s death his son and heir became first an Egyptian vassal, and a few years later, after the Babylonians defeated the Egyptians, a Babylonian vassal. Twenty years after Josiah’s death the Egyptians convinced the kings of Judah, Philistia, Edom, Moab, Ammon, and Tyre to stop paying tribute to Babylonia, which resulted in a series of Babylonian invasions and sieges, the destruction of the Temple, and the exile of the royal family, the temple priests, and other elites, the very tragedy for which our Haftorot of Consolation comfort us. Twenty-five years after Josiah’s death, his grandson Zedekiah was forced to watch the execution of his children, and then was blinded and taken into exile.
Some of the exiles would return with a changed, more portable religion that is not fixed to a specific geographic location. And though the Temple would be rebuilt, the exiles also would create a new decentralized (in contrast to the Temple) religious institution, the synagogue, which would serve as a model not only for congregations such as ours, but also for churches and mosques worldwide.
Chazal, our sages of blessed memory, whose wisdom is recorded in the Talmud and other contemporaneous works, teach us that God gave us three conditional gifts and two unconditional gifts. The three conditional gifts are the Land of Israel, the Davidic Monarchy, and the Temple. The two unconditional gifts are the Torah and the hereditary priesthood.
The Land of Israel was a conditional gift, yet Israel’s Jewish messianists regard it as an entitlement. Though they are more theocrats than monarchists, they are indifferent as to whether Israel remains a democracy, and some of them have drawn up blueprints for a third Temple. Rabbi Akiba summarized the Torah as “Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” and for nearly two millennia Jewish scholars have argued about whether that commandment only applies to fellow Jews or to our gentile neighbors as well. The conduct of many if not most Jewish messianist settlers on the West Bank towards their Palestinian neighbors makes it quite clear where come down on that dispute. As for the hereditary priesthood, since I am an Israelite married to a Bat Cohen the less said about that the better.
If contemporary Jewish messianists continue to get their way, and Israel ceases to be both a majority Jewish and democratic state, will that become one more tragedy to mourn during the weeks preceding and following the ninth of Av for which we and future generations of Jews will collectively, rightly, blame ourselves? The answer to that question will become apparent retrospectively in a matter of decades, not centuries.
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