Re´eh From a Feminist Point of View

Dr. Bonna Devora Haberman tells the story of Re´eh from a feminist point of view.

by Dr. Bonna Devora Haberman

At the outset, Parshat Re'eh offers us the possibility of divine blessing and curse. When they enter the Promised Land, the Israelites will need to destroy all aspects of idolatry. Then, they will live in security, free to observe Jewish religious practices - focused on the place where the divine choses for the Name to dwell. There they shall eat and rejoice in the sacred service, and provide for the Levi'im who officiate. Avoiding the temptation to follow heathen practices requires vigilance, and even the death penalty for false prophets and diviners - those who lead the people astray. The parasha specifies which creatures are kosher-fit for eating – on land, in water, and in the air. The produce of the land must also be made fit by bringing portions, tithes, to the sacred place.

The seventh year, the sabbatical, is a year of release – of both debts and bondage. The Torah requires the remission of all monetary debts. Safety mechanisms are in place to ensure that people will continue to lend money to the needy through to the end of the sixth year in the sabbatical cycle. Slaves are to be set free unless they freely choose to stay with their master.

The last chapter summarizes the essence of the observances of the three regalim-pilgrim festivals - according to the harvest cycle, from Pesach in the spring through Shavuot and Sukkot in the autumn. Each festival provides for the needy and landless.

Explorations

Among Moshe's talks that prepare the Children of Israel for life in the Promised Land, Parshat Re'eh differentiates between Israelite-Jewish sacred service and forbidden heathen service, between identity and difference, between self and other, between blessing and curse, between life and death. In an effort to guide the people toward faithfulness to their religious tradition, the Torah makes a strict separation between Israelite practice and forbidden Canaanite worship. After the conquest of the Canaanite peoples who inhabited the Promised Land prior to the arrival of the Israelites, all remnants of Canaanite worship were to be erased. Upon possessing the land, the Israelites are charged to destroy every sign of idolatry – the sites, altars, pillars and posts, images, “obliterating their name from that site” (Devarim 12:2).

They are touproot heathen practices from homes and villages, “whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree” (Devarim 12:2). Such passages conjure images of the Taliban's destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001. The two Buddhas— one was 165 feet high, the other 114 feet —were carved into the sandstone face of the mountain at Bamiyan, most likely in the seventh century A.D. by Buddhist monks, thousands of whom once lived in the caves and grottoes along the two colossi. With their flowing Greek robes draped in stone over the familiar look of subcontinental Buddhas, the sculptures were a sublime fusion of the Hellenic influence on the region dating back to Alexander the Great’s conquests around 330 B.C. and the South Asian influence that prevailed until the Arab-Muslim conquests of the 9th century.

The destruction of the Canaanite religious artifacts commanded by the Torah, and the contemporary destruction of the Buddha carvings in Afghanistan raise questions about ferocious religious intolerance and zealotry. What reasons could justify violent behavior toward other religions/beliefs, then and now? In the Israelite case, how can we reconcile such an approach with the divine to whom we attribute mercy and love?

The Torah explains how fear underlies the proscriptions - lest the Israelites succumb to idolatry. One reason for intolerance is the view that idolatry is irresistible,

Beware of being lured into their ways after they have been wiped out before you! Do not inquire about their gods, saying, "How did those nations worship their gods? I too will follow those practices." (Devarim 12:30)

This verse acknowledges that the fear persists even after idolatry has been “wiped out”. While wiping out statues does not destroy ideas and temptations, breaking idols has been a method used to help shift ideas and beliefs.The commandment to destroy idols expresses a form of Jewish iconoclasm – a critical, rebellious, innovative spirit deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. Many legends explain the choice of Avram as the original progenitor of Jewish faith. Among the most famous is an ancient midrash in Bereishit Rabba (38:13),

R. Chiya said in the name of R. Ada of Yaffo:

Terach [Avraham's father] was an idol worshipper, and he also sold idols. One day he went somewhere, and left Avraham to sell in his place… A woman arrived, holding a plate of grain. She said to Avraham: "Take this and offer it before them." Avraham got up, took a stick in his hands and broke all the idols, leaving the stick in the hand of the largest one. When his father returned, he asked: "Who did this to them?"

Avraham answered, "What have I to hide? A woman came, carrying a plate of grain. She said to me, 'Take this and offer it before them.' I offered it before them, and this one here said, 'I shall eat first.' Then that one said, 'I shall eat first.' The largest idol got up, took the stick, and shattered them!"

Terach said: "What nonsense are you telling me – are they then conscious?"

Avraham answered, "Do your ears not hear what your lips are saying?"

This midrash might be based on a story with similar themes in the book of Shoftim-Judges – during the early days of Gidon the Judge,

It happened that night that God said to him: "Take your father's bull… and pull down the altar of Ba'al that belongs to your father, and cut down the ashera [a Semitic mother goddess]that is upon it. You shall build an altar to the Lord your God at the top of that fortress…" Gidon took ten men of his servants and did as God had spoken to him. Since he feared his father's household and the men of the city, he could not do it by day, so he did it by night. The people of the city awoke early in the morning, and behold – the altar of Ba'al was pulled down, and the ashera atop it was cut down… They said to one another, "Who did this thing?" They inquired and investigated, and they said: "Gidon the son of Yoash did this thing."

The people of the city said to Yoash, "Bring out your son that he may die, for he has pulled down the altar of Ba'al and has cut down the ashera atop it.

"Yoash said to all who stood against him: "Will you then fight on behalf of Ba'al; will you then rescue him? Whoever fights for him – let him die by morning; if he is a god, let him fight for himself, for his altar is destroyed."

On that day, he called him Yeruba'al, saying, "Let Ba'al fight against him, for he has pulled down his altar." (Shoftim 6:25-32)

The empirical lesson breaks resistance to a new conception, a different approach founded on reason. In both stories, a bold young person challenges idolatry by destroying idols to demonstrate their impotence. The purpose is educational - to prove the emptiness attributed to heathen belief.

The Torah explains that the Canaanite rituals were so utterly degraded that they could not be tolerated,

You shall not act thus toward the Lord your God, for they perform for their gods every abhorrent act that the Lord detests; they even offer up their sons and daughters in fire to their gods. (Devarim 12:31)

Verses in VaYiqra also prohibit the offering of children to honor Moloch, an ancient Ammonite god (VaYiqra 18:21), practicing sodomy and bestiality (VaYiqra 18:23, 24, 20:3). The Torah deems the gravity of Canaanite immorality to justify the need to exterminate the practices and their implements. Child sacrifice – burning in fire – is one such Canaanite ritual.

The commandment in our parasha to destroy heathen practice derives from the Torah's claim to the absolute ethical superiority of Israelite practice. This attitude is not in the least politically correct in our era of liberalism and pluralism. People widely believe that no one culture or belief has any privileged claim to truth. Today it is commonplace knowledge that no-one has clear, unimpeded judgement; rather, every person sees through a lens ground by history and experience, by culture and perspective. This approach often sustains “ethical relativism” – the claim that there is no true vantage point from which to evaluate the attitudes and practices of other cultures. Accordingly, we respect the entitlement of all to pursue their practices. This attitude often leads to a non-interference and disengagement of people from one another. It can also tolerate cruelty and even evil. Against relativism, the Torah adamantly rejects tolerance for practices that offend its core values. Returning to the example of the Taliban destroying the Buddhas, we need to inquire whether the purpose is to improve and refine the ethical practices of society, to honor and increase human and divine dignity. In relation to Israeli society, we deem the destruction of relics of idolatrous Canaanite worship to be inappropriate to our current context. This 13th century clay Canaanite fertility goddess is housed in the esteemed and extensive “Land of Canaan” collection at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

In our time, there is some consensus that physical destruction, purging religious or cultural artifacts offends respect for diversity. How to negotiate the co-existence of mutually exclusive religious and cultural beliefs and practices is an ongoing challenge for all of humanity.

Jewish tradition has contributed substantially toward the gradual unfolding of human values through centuries of striving for more refined ethics. The sacredness and dignity of human life are foundational to that striving. How these values will continue to evolve and become better fulfilled is our responsibility as empowered interpreters of our tradition. Fulfilling them with compassion and respect for all human beings, women and men, non-Jew and Jew, is one of the challenges that our current moment in history poses to Jewish tradition.

This is one of the 54-parashiot of the ICJW- International Council of Jewish Women’s Bea Zucker Online Bible Study Program “The Five Books of Moses: Contemporary Issues and Classic Perspectives” written by Dr. Bonna Devora Haberman.